Architectural Competitions

Malcolm Reading


Surprisingly few church developments are commissioned through competitions. Why is this? Almost all other key civic buildings, such as town halls, schools, hospitals and social housing, have a tradition of being commissioned through competition. Indeed the careers of many emerging architects are launched by entering a competition for a civic building.

  Members of a competition jury pass around an architect's model  
  A competition jury in action (Photo: Kirsty Anderson)

There are of course, exceptions. Liverpool Cathedral was the product of a competition run in 1902, which Sir Giles Gilbert Scott won at the age of 21 – the original emerging architect. So too was Sir Basil Spence’s winning scheme for the new cathedral in Coventry arising around the devastated ruins of the building destroyed during the second world war. There are some notable modest developments too, such as the new ‘Cellarium’ restaurant at Westminster Abbey, by architects Panter Hudspith.

Churches are unusual in having their own planning procedures and either an inspecting architect or, in the case of the most important, a surveyor of the fabric. Great committee structures surround even modest building work including diocese committees and fabric committees. The Catholic and Anglican churches have subtly different ways to engage with new design work and permissions. England and Wales’ planning procedures differ from Scotland’s. And enfolding all of this are the mechanics and regulations of listed buildings and ecclesiastical exemption.

This article will try to set a route through this apparent morass, demonstrating how best to map out a church’s need – no matter how great or small – translating this into a comprehensible brief and selecting the right architectural team to deliver a new facility, church extension or new sacred building. A design competition, it will be argued, is an excellent way to attract new talent and achieve exemplary results, and is good value.

Let’s assume that you have identified a statement of need and prepared a brief (of which more later), and are looking for an architect. There are three ways of doing this.

The first is to work with someone you know, perhaps a practice that has been working on the church for some time, or is known for work in the region. This isn’t a bad way to find an architect and many highly successful schemes have been commissioned in this way. The benefits are familiarity and dependability, and for many straightforward projects this approach has served client and architect well over the years. The deficiency might be a lack of fresh ideas and a narrowing of perspective; familiarity is not the best way to foster innovation.

The second and probably most popular in an ecclesiastical context, is to ask the church authority (the diocese in the case of an Anglican church) who has done good work elsewhere, and which practice might have the right set of skills? This type of request might result in a small competitive interview of a few firms, the benefit being that these firms are all likely to have background experience in church design, conservation issues and seeking permissions. The mix of skills and knowledge in these firms is likely to be good for many standard projects, but the selection may lack the magic needed for a really different approach to reuse or regeneration.

The third and by far the most interesting selection process is to run a competition. This can be arranged in a number of ways to engage with emerging talent and smaller practices who are keen to optimise your brief and budget. We find this approach can motivate client and architect to produce something of rare quality and long-lasting value, often outstripping the expectations set out in the client’s brief.

Of course, this is not to say that the first two methods of finding an architect are out-dated, but the competition process has unique attributes for those wishing to innovate and bring ideas from outside.

It is valuable at this stage to look at things from the architect’s perspective. Many architects win their first jobs through a competition; some certainly make their name this way. However, entering competitions has a big impact on a small office and clients should recognise this. There can be only one winner; the runners-up still have to pay their staff and rent. For this reason, it is customary to offer a small payment (or honorarium) to the unsuccessful practices.

Let’s look at how a competition might be approached for an ecclesiastical building or extension.


The starting point for any alteration of an existing building is to define what must be done, taking into consideration the significance of the building itself. Two statements are required for the permission or ‘faculty’, one outlining the significance of the building and the other outlining the need for the work, and these must be prepared before a competition can begin.

Many churches already have a statement of significance (or ‘significance assessment’). This document briefly summarises the importance of the building and helps to identify where changes can/can’t be made. If you don’t have one, this should be commissioned from a conservation architect or heritage consultant. The outcome is a useful resource for the future, as well as contributing to any immediate development ideas.

For more important and complex historic sites, it is helpful to have a conservation plan prepared by a specialist heritage consultant. This draws on the information set out in the statement of significance and expands it, establishing the relevant heritage and archaeological factors.

The statement of need, which is specific to the work proposed, brings together views on the need for reorganisation or provision of new facilities. Of course, it is important to get this right, so it is best prepared in the light of the statement of significance and, if there is one, the conservation plan. It should be discussed widely.

These documents form the framework of the client brief. It is a good idea to have this reviewed by the relevant church authority. In the Anglican church the diocesan advisory committee (DAC) will be able to help and may even provide some specialist advice at this stage. The DAC will also advise if you need to address any specific concerns or seek formal feedback from governing or expert bodies. At this stage it is also worthwhile to take the church authority’s advice on the permissions that might be required for the work: ecclesiastical exemption is a complex area and many projects may require a mixture of formal permissions.

This may seem a long process but it is essential if you wish the subsequent stages to go well.


So, finally, armed with a brief and endorsement from the DAC (or other church authority), you can launch your competition.

Appoint someone to handle the process. For any major project this should be an external competition manager, a company or individual specialising in the organisation of competitions, and preferably one with architectural expertise. However, for many smaller projects the role would suit someone with good administrative and communication skills.

Deciding on the type of competition is a key step as this will determine the content of submissions as well as the timetable. The old-fashioned way is an open competition where everyone is invited to enter and a single winner is chosen. This has fallen out of favour because it encourages too wide a divergence of ideas, and a preliminary design which looks convincing may turn out to be too expensive or impossible to build.

A two-stage process is much more reliable and is now widely used for all building types. The first stage is to invite interest. A shortlist (of say five) of the most promising applicants is then selected to go forward to a second stage. During the second stage, the teams receive the detailed brief, visit the site and meet key client contacts.

Selecting an architect is part chemistry so any opportunity to meet and engage in dialogue helps each side get to know the other. Visits to completed buildings by architects on the shortlist can be revealing, especially if you can meet the client, hear the real story behind the project and see how the building is performing.

The second stage closes with a submission by each team. This is normally in the form of a few presentation drawings, and a report which provides further information such as the team members’ CVs, commercial information (fees and costs for example), and perhaps how the team intends to manage the project.


  Extract from the winning competition entry for the Cellarium Café, Westminster Abbey (Image: Panter Hudspith)

The assessment process needs to be managed carefully – and this is where other professional friends can be invaluable. Take a good look at the submissions and compare these to the original brief: how well do they satisfy the need? Do they extend the brief or reveal ways that the brief might be made even better? Is the design sympathetic or unusual?

Depending on the scale or importance of the project, a peer review of the submissions by other professionals may be advisable. The DAC might offer support for this, or you may find someone in the congregation who has a background in the industry. If carried out objectively a peer review will provide a good comparison between the schemes being presented, allowing a balanced analysis of the technical parameters of each submission.

The final part in the process is the interview or jury. A good number for the panel is five, the maximum is seven. A collegiate rather than a courtroom atmosphere is best, with jury members selected for their maturity and clarity of contribution. Remember, you are trying to make the best match and you may be working with your selected team for a number of years. Don’t fill the places with independent ‘experts’; one or two is appropriate, but no more. The balance should comprise stakeholders, people with some interest in the project.

Each team presents its concept and is available for questions. It is advisable to set aside a day for this: try to see everyone on the same day with the same jury membership. Allow 15 minutes of presentation, followed by half an hour of close question and debate. The jury can usefully discuss the outgoing team before seeing the next, with a sumup discussion at the end of the day.

Having read this far, some might feel overwhelmed by the process so it is worth a reminder of the wider benefits to the competition process. Most obviously, it is fair and meritorious. The use of open days and exhibitions of the submissions can involve the congregation and supporters. And it is a great way to interest potential funders.

Most importantly, the competition entries will demonstrate different ways to approach the brief and reveal to the client team the value of different professional collaborators. There may be a place for an artist, a craftsperson or furniture maker – each or all of these skills can be added to the mix in a competition.

A word of advice: architects are generally delighted to be invited to enter a competition but it must be remembered that an architectural practice is a business. The investment in entering a competition is considerable and there is no guarantee of success. Some see it is a valid marketing exercise; some value the benefit of a ‘real’ project to help develop skills. Without exception, it is vital to organise and manage the competition process with transparency and to stick to any commitments made about deadlines, information provided to competitors and selection criteria.

Where can one turn for information? The church authority or regional DAC is a good starting point as they may be able to report on how others have gone about arranging competitions. The regional office of the RIBA is also a useful resource as they will have information on the practices working locally who have relevant experience, but may charge a fee for this service. Alternatively, for comprehensive assistance throughout the process, consider engaging the services of a competition manager.

Do consider a competition if you are thinking about building. A competition brings energy and innovation as well as a process that provides the ‘best fit’ of team and client. The discarded entries are not wasted as these provide an insight into the brief. The effort is worthwhile – and great fun!



Historic Churches, 2013


MALCOLM READING RIBA FRSA runs Malcolm Reading Consultants (MRC), an architectural consultancy which specialises in heritage master planning and the selection of contemporary designers. He has advised many faith-based organisations including Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Christ Church, Spitalfields.

Further information


Churches (general)

Conservation principles

Financial services

Legislation and guidance

Project management



Advisory bodies and associations


Building contractors and consultants

Church repair contractors

Disabled access consultants/ audits

Planning consultants

Project management

Quantity surveyors

Structural engineers
Site Map