Competition time

It’s less the rules than fairness of the judging that matters

As a student I once had a summer job at a decidedly ropey market research organisation in suburban London. In an ill-lit industrial unit with a bunch of other chancers, I’d sift through reams of bank customer service questionnaires, noting down the ans­wers for profiling by a team of ‘crack’ researchers. The one thing I took from the whole sorry experience was the firm’s inquisition-like mantra, emblazoned on a giant wall banner: ‘Torture the data for long enough and it will eventually confess.’

The painstaking inked etching of a densely clouded sky was in fact tiny handwritten profanities by some disgruntled employee, stating in no uncertain terms what a pain George Gilbert Scott was

There seems to be a lot of that going on at the moment; the RIBA’s  competition for the refit of 76 Portland Place which saw some members claiming that after studying the PQQ they believed the entry criteria and qualification maths precluded smaller practices. Shame about the changed terms- it might have been a blessing in disguise. 

I mean, larger firms have got dedicated teams pulling these babies together, well-resourced, knocking stuff out in time-honoured fashion like George Gilbert Scott, whose prolific office had teams of articled apprentices slaving over nothing but competition entries circa 1850, or whenever.

I heard an apocryphal story of an academic once putting one of Scott’s massive perspectives under a microscope and discovering that the painstaking inked etching of a densely clouded sky was in fact line upon line of tiny handwritten profanities by some disgruntled employee, stating in no uncertain terms what a pain his boss was. True or not ( I did a Google search on ‘Scott’, ‘clouds’ and ‘old git’ that turned up nothing, so that’ll be a ‘not’ then) the truth is that the resource commitment by any small firm in competition will be enormous relative to a larger one with systems already in place. Given the speculative nature of the beast and your eventual 5/1 odds of success, this could be financially exposing to smaller firms. Not quite a level playing field then.

Then there’s the score sheet. An architect showed me one for a housing competition he was shortlisted to design run by a local authority – with a huge percentage weighting on the fee rather than design component. So what he did was quite savvy, putting in a deliberately low fee bid that obviously had him scoring very highly in that section. He didn’t win, but with the chosen firm’s fee bid high, the LA consequently had to dish out perfect 10s to the winner on all the design elements. Now, that firm might be good, but it’s not God. When the losing firms were issued their scores relative to the winner, three were left asking if the devil was in the detail as they licked the wounds of lost monies. Sour grapes, maybe, but there was something oddly compelling about watching the LA wriggle to justify the figures.

The lesson is that the terms of a competition, if explicit, are not the problem, but the perceived fairness of the adjudication process. Life’s tougher for the small guy here, but I can only hope that the clear genius of the design idea will be the clincher, and one not lost to the vagaries of judging stats and number crunching. With a small firm gambling on a dream job like this, let’s hope that at the last the winner’s more about firmitas than it is about Fermat.