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Feature article

Thou shalt have a Design Competition


WORDS BY Helen Day

As I write, legislative reforms to the Melbourne Planning Scheme are being drafted for the Hoddle Grid and Southbank. The C270 Planning Scheme Amendment proposes to introduce site-based density controls to Central Melbourne, a practice that is typical in many comparable downtown areas, including Chicago, New York, Singapore, Toronto and Sydney. The proposed allowable site-based density for Central Melbourne is 18:1. Also on the table is a potential uplift on the base density in exchange for delivering defined public benefits, such as affordable housing, community facilities, public spaces, commercial land-uses and undertaking a competitive process for significant planning applications. It is anticipated that Central Melbourne will soon be the beneficiary of a Sydney-inspired Design Excellence policy and regulated competitive design process.

This brief article highlights how Sydney’s policy has supported better design processes and assessment across the city.


Back in 2000, the City of Sydney conceived a process-led planning control that mandated a competitive and merit-based design assessment process for large buildings in the central city. The so-called Design Excellence process has been legislated and practised in Central Sydney ever since. A potential uplift of up to 10% of the total floor space or building height may be permitted for the satisfactory completion of competitive design process that exhibits ‘design excellence’. The City of Sydney’s Competitive Design Policy sets the framework and requirements for competitive design processes and ‘design excellence’ criteria.

In Central Sydney, under the Local Environment Plan (2012) the requirement for a competitive design process is triggered for development proposals that are worth $100,000,000 or more, are over 55 metres in height or are on sites greater than 1500m2. And since 2012, in all other areas of Sydney’s Local Government Area (26km2), the process is triggered for proposals worth $100,000,000 or more, are over 25 metres in height or are on sites greater than 5,000m2.

The Design Excellence process encompasses three potential competitive design processes:

  • Open architectural design competition
  • Invited architectural design competition
  • Invited alternatives on a competitive basis

In recent years, about 90% of all competitive processes have been an invited alternative competitive design process. Open architectural design competitions are generally undertaken for public projects, such as Green Square Library and Plaza. Invited architectural design competitions are generally conducted for significant, high profile commercial and/or residential projects in Central Sydney.

How does a typical invited alternative competitive design process work?


The primary benefits of the Design Excellence process far outweigh criticisms, which tend to be levelled at imperfect implementation practices, rather than the policy per se. Criticisms are themed around the following: architectural fees, timescales, unfair advantage and a disjunction between ‘winning criteria’ and ‘briefing criteria’.

The following highlights some important objectives and benefits that the policy has delivered in Sydney.


Through a mandated process, the government has validated high quality design as a legitimate contributor to ‘public benefit’ in the city. Design Excellence has earned its stripes as a strategic driver of responsible capital city growth with livable outcomes. This has embedded a competitive design culture that has become mainstream, with reports that applicants for larger scale projects voluntarily elect to undertake a competitive design process, regardless of regulatory requirements, and noting the potential for an uplift in development yield.


Eligibility for up to 10% floor space or height uplift is contingent on demonstrating Design Excellence and successfully winning a well- governed, merit-based assessment competition. Importantly, this mandatory control for significant planning applications facilitates a rigorous assessment of several design responses to a single site context. This valuable comparative exercise is undertaken by credentialed design panelists who provide an impartial and qualitative Competition Report to the planning authority. To inform statutory decision making, the consent authority is presented with findings that have benefited from expert design and planning assessments. Moreover, the Central Sydney Planning Committee and the City’s planning officers can be confident that a fair, fulsome and well-governed process has been undertaken.

In the Competition Reports that I reviewed, thoughtful design responses to site specific conditions were notable in all submissions. This means that an appreciation of contextual design thinking is elevated in the face of generalized and prescriptive built form controls which are often described by built environment experts as blunt and overly simplistic. The role of built form planning controls to safe keep precious public spaces and public amenity in the city (by defining an equitable built form envelope) can be tested and ideally augmented through the ‘competitive design process’.

The City’s Competitive Design policy does not polarise good design and good planning, but rather provides a clear and mutually reinforcing ‘check and balance’ process that can be readily pursued by planning regulators, architects, designers, developers and investors.


The ‘competitive design process’ policy, coupled with the potential 10% uplift of allowable floor space or height has incentivised investment in conditions that support better design thinking and better design assessment practices in Sydney. Substantial investment has come from both the private and public sectors.

The ‘competitive design process’ has stimulated investment in the following indispensable enabling mechanisms:

  • The Brief – joining up and clarifying public and private sector design and development criteria based on an approved Stage One – Development Application established clear design parameters. The City of Sydney provides a clear Model Competitive Design Process Brief for Applicants.
  • Human Capital – both the City of Sydney and the Applicant have dedicated project management teams to facilitate, coordinate, oversee and report on the process. The applicant funds a Competition Manager, a selection panel/ jury and invited architect-led teams. The City of Sydney has invested in a Design Excellence Team of specialist senior staff who provide technical and policy inputs, review jury appointments, oversee key documents (Brief, Recommendations) and observe meetings at each stage of the process.
  • Competitive Design Report – A formal report is submitted as part of the Stage 2 Development Application to the consent authority that outlines the competition process and the selection panel’s considerations, verdict and recommendations. This helps to streamline the planning approvals process.

Principle diagram showing density controls in Sydney, including allowable base Floor Area Ratio (8:1) with additional Floor Area Uplift (in this case, 6:1 for residential land-use) and maximum discretionary uplift of up to 10% for Design Excellence (in this case, 1.4:1)

DIAGRAM – Diagram showing typical invited design alternatives on a competitive basis. Typically, 3-5 architect-led teams are invited.

Winning design proposal for 130 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, by Bates Smart


In addition to leveraging investment in design services across the city generally, the competitive nature of the process has helped to broaden the participation of worthy architectural and design practices. Soliciting the best designers from the city and further afield is the ultimate key to getting better architecture and public spaces in a city. The planning system has found an innovative, streamlined and legitimate way to leverage design expertise in significant private development applications.

In an informative Design Excellence research paper by academics from the Universities of Sydney and Canberra , a sample of 37 competitive design processes (2000-2014) was analysed. The sample included the participation of 80 different design teams. ‘Of these, 49 firms competed once, 15 firms competed two or three times, 11 firms competed four to six times, and five firms competed seven to nine times. There were twenty-seven one-time winners, six two-time winners and one three-time winner’. This suggests that ‘the usual suspects’ were not always the winners.

The point to make here is that the policy has lowered traditional barriers to entry to worthy participants. The process incentivises an Applicant to invite architects and designers who are genuinely capable of winning.


This brief look into the Sydney experience shows that the policy has delivered some fundamental benefits to the quality of the central city.

Well designed built form is validated as a driver of social, economic and amenity advancement in the city. Statutory endorsement and the ‘density bonus’ incentive underpin effective implementation.

The design-led and site specific nature of the ‘Design Excellence’ process augments the ‘safe keeping’ role of prescriptive planning controls. Design and planning policies become mutually reinforcing in the endeavor to benefit the amenity of the city.

In Sydney, the process supports the engagement of talented architects, urban designers, landscape architects and designers, a lynchpin of excellent architecture and public space design. Increased participation of design talent in all large (and mostly private) developments is a valuable consequence of the invited competitive design policy.

Significant enabling resources have been committed to ensure that the ‘competitive design process’ is well-governed, transparent and streamlined, all imperatives of effective policy implementation.

Sydney and its citizens are the ultimate winners of the ‘competitive design process’.


Adamczyk, Elizabeth; Practising architecture in Global Sydney: Re-theorising the Architecture of the Global City; presented at State of Australian Cities Conference 2015

Freestone, Robert et al; The Regulation of Excellence: Design Competitions in Sydney presented at State of Australian Cities Conference 2015

Central Sydney Local Environment Plan 2012: Clause 6.21 Design Excellence

Helen Day is the Founding Director of HELEN DAY URBANISM and a member of the Victorian Design Review Panel (Office of the Victorian Government Architect)