Thought Leadership: Response to City of Sydney Competitive Design Policy Draft Amendments

March 5, 2020

Draft amendments to the City of Sydney competitive design policy have been announced – and I’m not sure the applause has been loud enough!! 

Intended to deliver design excellence to our CBD built environment, these changes go further and start to tackle some of the cultural and professional issues impacting our profession and, more broadly, our industry. The potential impact is far-reaching and hugely positive.  

There are six key changes. 

1. Competitors must be award-winning architects with a proven track record

This will help achieve design excellence, and it promotes Australian design talent and businesses for long term economic sustainability and appeal of the profession in Australia.

2. A minimum of 50% of competitors must be Australian        

Design quality will benefit through local knowledge and passion for place. The move will also inspire young people looking to join the profession with certainty that large and important projects are available to them in their future careers.

3. At least one competitor must be an emerging architect

This is about a diversity of approach, with fresh and new voices to challenge and rethink the status quo. It will propel talented emerging architects into success, in turn attracting great new talent into the profession. 

4. Sustainable design to be a focus of the practice 

It’s good to see this formalised in policy. More than 850 practices have pledged to Architects Declare Australia; many are steadily improving their deliverables and approaches in this regard. And to see the City reinforcing the importance of sustainability as a component of design excellence is hugely reassuring.

5. A fee will be offered covering a healthy percentage of the cost to participate 

Excellent. While it won’t cover the real costs, design will flourish without the undue financial stress of a competition on a business and burdens on staff. This allows smaller firms to participate in what would otherwise be cost-prohibitive.

And my personal favourite: 

6.    50% female representation – at a leadership and team level

This has been queried about town – “competitions are for design excellence, what difference does gender make to design excellence?” A lot, in fact. Forbes Insights (and other reputable surveys) has found that the world’s largest companies believe diversity is a key driver of innovation. Gender inclusion is proven to improve outcomes – better business performance, team performance, individual performance. Having both male and female thoughts and inputs into design solutions will only add value to the design outcomes. 

In an industry that struggles for gender parity in leadership roles – particularly in design leadership – this is motivating (to say the least), and so refreshing. Thank you, City of Sydney, for taking a leading position on what may be a hugely positive revolution for our profession. 

Despite supportive shifts by some architecture practices, unhealthy work practices of the profession are often the reason people (frequently women) with families leave in the senior years of their career for a more ‘life-friendly’ profession. While things are improving, the dearth of women in leadership roles in architecture practice continues to reflect this legacy. The City’s standards for equity will demand us all (architect firms, clients, contractors, universities) to rethink our ‘normal’ working conditions and replace them with better ones. 

Perhaps, as this criterion evolves, it will adopt the gender principle 40/40/20 endorsed by the Male Champions of Change. MCC is a peer group of over 230 leaders across Australia driving change on gender equality issues in the private sector and government. Architecture is one of its industry-specific groups, with each member on the path to achieving 40% female and 40% male, with 20% flexible (in recognition of the need for flexibility). 

Equality of female representation will improve design excellence through diversity of approach AND the entire industry by encouraging a change in work practices and cultures. 

An amended policy will in part reinvigorate architecture as a career option for the next generation of brilliant minds and encourage women to stay – a profession that respects diversity, provides fair work practices, promotes Australia’s creative talent, gives the small players a fair go, respects suitably to pay fairly, makes an impact on Earth’s sustainability AND protects design excellence in our built environment. YES!

Sarah Kay is an architect and director of global firm Woods Bagot

Woods Bagot is a founding signatory of Architects Declare Australia and a member of the Architects Male Champions of Change.  

These comments are particular to the proposed change to the design competition process for tower cluster areas in the CBD, currently on public exhibition as an amendment to the City of Sydney’s Competitive Design Policy: Central Sydney as part of the draft Central Sydney Planning Strategy.