Observations… and A Few Suggestions

An inside look at the jurying process

By Anne J. Swager, Hon. AIA Posted on October 10, 2012

Anne Swager - headshotMany years ago, I was tortured for a number of months by an architect who insisted we had to standardize the graphic presentation of the notebooks that everyone submitted for design awards.  He was convinced and remained so, no matter what I said, that the jury members would be unduly influenced by a flashy graphic presentation.  I never saw any evidence of that then anymore than I see it now.

I had another architect tell one of his employees that if I didn’t like a project I could influence the jury to not give an award.  Again not true.  Juries are extremely independent. While I am flattered that anyone would think I have that much power, even if that was the case, I would not use it to try and influence the jury.  In fact, I am allowed to say very little during the process and just to make sure I don’t, the First Vice President of AIA Pittsburgh and I attend together.

It’s true that juries can be fickle but typically they aren’t.  In my 20+ years of watching them, I have found that remarkably, they are pretty consistent.  So what do they want to see?

First and foremost, they want to know the story.  What is the story of the project? What design problem are you trying to solve? When possible, the story needs to be told with pictures, floor plans, or even elevations. For adaptive reuse or rehab projects, before and after shots are very helpful.  For a preservation project, before and after shots work but also you need an explanation of what you did.  Did you do some extraordinary research that led you to paint the walls green? Then by all means tell the jury.

Typically but not always, the jury only reads the explanations on the project cover sheet if they are interested in the project and/or they have a question.  There are a lot of entries (this year over 80) and it is too time consuming to read everything everyone submits.  You are best to keep it brief, simple, and to the point.  The juries are always impressed with the work of Pittsburgh architects and so, you don’t need to over-embellish your entry explanation.  Limit yourself to main points and for green entries, bullet points are a tremendous help.

When I am asked to comment on a project by the jury, what they ask 99% of the time is that I put the project in context.  Do I know where the building is located? Is it on a prominent corner? Is it a good neighbor to the buildings on either side? Or if you’ve submitted a project you did in a park, where is the park?  A small map with your project pinpointed on it is sometimes an effective way to help put it in context.

Since we do not have the budget to bring a jury to town and have them tour every project, this is truly a photography contest.  Good photos only please. If you are going to take your own photos – and I certainly understand the economics behind such a decision – then be sure to take Ed Massery’s class offered at Build Pittsburgh on how to photograph your own project.  He gave away a tremendous amount of information on how to do this successfully.  It also should go without saying that you have the option to leave out pictures of the least successful part of your project.  I can remember a wonderful church project a number of years ago.  The architect did a very credible job in pulling off an addition very much in keeping with the spirit and style of the church.  What wasn’t particularly successful was one wall detail where the new addition joined the old building.  It worked everywhere but on one side and the architect submitted a close-up of it.  Perhaps it was a good example of a pretty good resolution to an intractable problem but the jury hated it and the architect ended up without an award.

Mostly, juries want to give awards.  They are able to narrow down the good from the less successful projects in a relatively short time but then they spend an inordinate amount of time narrowing the field down to the winners.  Once we have the pile of winners, there is a whole other vetting process to decide what project wins what.  Last but not least is the tortuous process of jury comments.  Typically I record what is being said while the jury is deliberating on which project gets what award but that doesn’t always translate into cogent comments for the press.  In the end, one of the most important roles of design awards is to educate the public about good design.  Good jury comments are a crucial part of this.  The art is to remove “architect talk” from the comments and make them understandable to the public and the press.

Now that you know how to present your project in the best possible way, should you resubmit a project that did not win this year or even last year?  By all means, yes.  You have up to 5 years to submit your project.  Quite frequently, I see a project that has been overlooked for 4 years win in its last year of eligibility.  Juries have personalities and can have biases.  While we try to pick a balanced jury each year, it is not simple to do.  One year you might have a jury that really goes for the small exquisite jewel box and the next year, a jury that appreciates the complexity of good urban design and innovative infill.  It is impossible to know ahead of time what, if any, biases a jury has but you can be assured that the jury next year will be entirely different.

Let me reiterate one important point.  Most juries want to give awards.  While I recognize that my suggestions are very basic, many of you lose out because you do not follow some of these simple guidelines.  Pittsburgh is a wonderful, award-winning city, in great part because of the thoughtful, caring work that you do.  You all deserve to win and I want all of you to win.  Congratulations to all of the 2012 winners who will be revealed tomorrow, October 11th, at the Design Pittsburgh Gala. Don’t miss the celebration! Come share in the pride of what you and your colleagues accomplish. As every jury says every time…..the work is impressive.


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