Editorial: Taking the Podium

Editor Elsa Lam was part of the OAA Design Excellence jury, which convened for in-person deliberations at the OAA Headquarters this spring. Photo OAA

This month’s issue of Canadian Architect is a celebration of award winners: it features the laureates of the RAIC Gold Medal, the RAIC International Prize, the RAIC Annual Awards, and the National Urban Design Awards.

As co-chair of the RAIC Awards Advisory Committee, and a jury member for numerous architectural awards over the past decade, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on what makes for the most successful award programs—as well as the best award submissions.

Every awards jurying process involves deliberation, negotiation, and evolution of viewpoints among the jurors. In most programs with a substantial number of entries, jurors are given the opportunity to preview entries, and are often asked to scorecard them ahead of a jury meeting. But the best results are rarely the aggregate sum of those scorecards. Rather, the preliminary assessment is generally just a starting point for understanding how best to focus the jury’s time together.

Many juries are now convened online, and this has the advantage of being able to easily bring together jurors from different locations. However, I’ve found that with few exceptions, the quality of jury conversations is improved when juries meet in person. Like in any meeting, interpersonal dynamics interweave with the official business of selecting winning projects—and it’s easier to assess the values, expertise, and interests that each juror brings to a deliberation when you’re in the same physical space.

One of my favourite juries to participate on was the Toronto Urban Design Awards, about seven years ago. Because of the local nature of the program, much of the two-day process was spent driving around the GTA to see actual projects. This was an invaluable experience: as any designer knows, even a comprehensive set of photos, drawings, and even video cannot fully replicate the experience of being in a place. In some cases, seeing the projects nudged the jury’s assessment up, while in others, the reality proved to be disappointing compared to the submission package.

Increasingly, the submission of sustainability metrics has become a requirement for entering awards programs. But how are these metrics used in the assessment of projects? In the recent OAA design excellence jury, a technical jury, consisting of two members of the association’s sustainability committee, independently reviewed all of the entries, and assigned a sustainability score to each entry, using a clear set of criteria (with half of the points assigned to energy efficiency, and the other half assigned for additional sustainable features, including fuel-switching, LEED certification, mass timber, greywater reuse, and so on). The technical marks were presented to the jury, and were an important factor in its decisions.

What characterizes a winning entry? In most design awards, the quality of photos is important—there is a tangible difference in quality with professional photography. The inclusion of floorplans and other key drawings, even if not mandated by the award, is also key. In the cases where a limited number of images is specified, drawings can often be included as part of a composite image, placed alongside a relevant photo. Many award submissions allow for a short text. The clarity of this narrative is important, especially as it pertains to criteria like process or social impact, which may not be immediately apparent from the design. If videos are permitted, this can also be a powerful opportunity for storytelling about a project’s significance, and conveying the character of the resulting spaces.

It’s worth vetting the entire content of your submission to make sure every element is of high quality. The editor’s maxim “if in doubt, leave it out” is of relevance here. A significant amount of time may go into a well-composed awards submission; these honed materials can ideally be reused in websites, proposals, and marketing.

In the case of nominations for a person or organization to receive an honour, consider including letters of reference. The validation of peers, clients, and collaborators can be quite powerful—especially if the letters are not generic ones, but provide personal insight into the person or organization’s impact. Sometimes quantity can be impressive, too. I recently reviewed a nomination for a professor to receive an honour, which included several dozen letters of support from former students.

In the end, award juries and architects who participate in awards programs are supporting a common goal: to recognize the highest quality architecture and the industry’s most forward-looking practices and individuals. The effect, one hopes, is a progressive raising of the bar for architects, clients, and the culture of architecture in Canada.

As appeared in the May 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine