Glass Blocks and Design Competitions deserve each other

Bob Borson —  March 17, 2011 — 26 Comments

I have made no secret about my absolute disdain for glass block. If I thought it was worth hating I would but since I can’t hurt their feelings, I will resort to the only tool at my disposal: I won’t use it.

Ever.

Don’t ask.

It’s not going to happen.

Glass blocks make my face hurt. I talk to them when no one is looking – I tell it “I am going to bust your glass

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Once again I found myself going through my collection of old Architectural Forum magazines and I found an article – a glass block design competition. What?! That’s like Godzilla vs. Megalon – a perfect storm of two terrible things. Ugh … I haven’t ever spoken out about design competitions before but let me go on the record by saying that I dislike them only slightly less than I dislike glass block. Here’s why:

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Design Competitions are statistically a complete waste of time and resources.

Everybody’s time has some sort of value associated with it and an open design competition is a project that requires time to create, articulate, render, and submit. If you are doing that stuff you are not doing billable work, spending time with your friends or family, even sitting on the couch reading a book or watching TV. (*side bar* Watching TV is under-rated as a battery recharger. I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I would like to but I find it helpful as a way of turning my brain off so I can go to bed and sleep instead of lying there still processing today’s and tomorrow’s issues.)

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The competition is plentiful

There are so many people who want to design and there are generally few restrictions on who is eligible to enter. If you have a pulse and the $$$ entry fee to spend, you’re in … and the end of the line is there, right next to the line to hell (they are easy to confuse with one another, the people generally look the same in either line). Have you ever bothered to look at how long the jury process takes and how many people enter? Nobody is looking at your project for more than a few moments – certainly not long enough for them to understand your concept. This harkens back to architecture school juries when some visiting professor or guest sits in on your final presentation and all they can really absorb are the quality of your graphics and the big idea. You don’t worry about the fact that the program requirements aren’t met or there are code issues, the jurors certainly won’t. Does it look cool? Is it awesome? Will it bring design awards and international media attention along with it when it gets built? Those are the major considerations which brings me to my next issue -

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The project will never get built

Everybody knows that open competition projects rarely get built because they never had the funding in place from the beginning. Part of the reason to have a competition in the first place is to help with fundraising – get people excited about your project so they will contribute monies or help you find your funding. What’s the best way to do this? Let’s listen in on a typical developer conversation shall we?

Developer: I think I have a great idea for a new development on this piece of land I own!!

Intern Developer: Really? But we don’t have any money…

Developer: Don’t be naive, other people will give us money for this development!!

Intern Developer: How will we show them what we want to do and convince them to give us their money? …

Developer: We will get an architect to design it for us and prepare all the fancy graphics we’ll need!! We’ll be rich!! (commence evil and maniacal laugh) Bwah-hahahahaha!!

Intern Developer: Sorry to point this out Sir, but we still don’t have any money to pay the architect for the design work or the fancy graphics …

Developer: Did an education come with that degree of yours? We aren’t going to pay them! They will do it for free – in fact, we’ll charge them an entry fee and then you and I can take a ski trip, and we’ll drink some drinks, maybe get a few Cuban stogies … with some babes!!

Intern Developer: Sir? Sir? … Sir!! What about building codes? Aren’t there zoning issues? And then there is that hostile neighborhood group … How will it ever get built? …

Developer: You big dummy!!! Of course the project won’t ever get built … but the idea is all we need so we can sell our land at a huge mark-up!! We’ll be rich!! (again, commence evil and maniacal laugh, twist mustache) Bwah-hahahahaha!!

Intern Developer: (slapping forehead) Noowwwww I get it!! Bwah-hahahahaha!!

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Nobody will ever know your name if you don’t win

There is typically a prize for finishing in the top 3. Top prize goes to the most winning-est loser and they actually get to try and develop the project into something real. The only reason there are 2nd or 3rd place finishers is so there is someone to take over the project with the most winning-est loser jumps off a bridge. You might get your name and a thumbnail image of your entry on one of the splash screen websites from Dwell, Architectural Record, ArchDaily, Inhabitat,  or some other architectural news outlet but so what? Your real projects have a real shot at getting on those websites now. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not but there is so much content out there that everybody is looking for something new and fresh to publish. If you do good work, those people want you to send them your projects. Getting published isn’t as difficult as it used to be with a little bit of effort.

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Architects entering design competitions diminish the value of all architectural services

This is probably the most important one if you care about the architectural profession. Giving away services to one group while trying to charge for them with another group is bad business. This is so blatantly obvious that I doubt they even cover this in business school because it’s like breathing – it’s something that you should be born knowing. Let’s explain it like this:

You own and operate Godzilla Rental Truck Company and you have only one truck. The good news is that you have a great client who loves this truck and rents it from you four days a week for $100/day. The bad news is that the truck is just sitting there doing nothing on that 5th day. Somebody new comes up and tells you that they see that the truck is just sitting there every Friday and they would like to rent it from you for $50 … sounds good right? I mean, $50 is better than $0 so you agree and now you have an extra $50 in your pocket. Ha ha ha … you think, Who’s the dummy now? Until your really great client who has been paying you $100/day for four days a week for the use of your truck  finds out that some new client gets the truck for $50/day and they are only renting it 1 day a week! As a result, they leave you because you are an idiot and a bad business person. The next thing you know, you go out of business, your house catches on fire and burns down, you lose the winning lottery ticket, your dog runs away, you are arrested and put in a maximum security penitentiary. That sounds pretty bad doesn’t it?

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There are some competitions that I think are worthwhile and I try and participate in them as much as possible. They are almost exclusively for charities and non-profit organizations. I think it’s a good thing that architects donate their time and expertise for the benefit of others but the motivation isn’t financial in most instances. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me because I have never won a major design competition (I would have to enter first) and I am more than okay with that.

Here is the article on the Insulux Glass Block Competition – you can click on the images to have the pictures and text enlarge in a new window. Some of these entries were interesting and I would have like to have seen them built – oh yeah … what am I thinking. They never got built.

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Do you think open competitions are a worthwhile use of our time and resources?

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  • Barbara

    I hate glass blocks too and I’m buying a house that was built in 1999 that has them. Any suggestions on the best replacement? I do love glass but prefer clear or frosted…..I’m concerned about the thickness and stability of the walls.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      That’s a hard question to ask without knowing a lot more about your specific situation. Most residential glass block window installations are not structural – at least now in a way that isn’t easily dealt with should the owner want to remove them later.

      Any contractor worth their salt (window manufacturer as well for that matter) should be able to look at the window you want to replace and let you know how to deal with it in the most cost effective manner. I wouldn’t be too worried about the thickness and stability of the wall.

      Cheers

  • http://twitter.com/TheDecorGirl Decor Girl

    Isn’t there some way we can ban the use of glass block? Bad for the intellectual or visual environment, something along those lines would be appropriate.

    Good post!
    Lisa

  • Dutchie

    You will reincarnate as a glass block, I’m totally sure! Anyways, I always enjoy reading your blog!

    Greetings from the Netherlands!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Awww – Hey! Why you want to give the cosmic Karma Gods any ideas on what I should be reincarnated as? Is it because I’m half Norwegian?

      That’s what I think this is all about.

      Thanks for commenting … I think?
      :)

      • Dutchie

        Who says I’m not a Karma God ;)?

        Hmmm, maybe I should have gone for a more friendly first post!

        P.S. I didn’t know you’re half Norwegian!

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          I actually loved your comment, I thought it was very friendly because I assumed you were joking about me being reincarnated as a glass block … you were joking right? :)

          I am also going to assume that you are a Karma God since you probably want to make up for threatening to reincarnate me as a glass block. Make me something happy, rich and powerful please.

          And yes, I am half Norwegian. My grandfather and grandmother on my fathers side came over to make a new life for themselves so they left the frigid tundra of Norway and settled in … Minnesota where it’s almost exactly the same as Norway.

          I look forward to more comments from you in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/ecomod Becky Shankle

    Heh. An architect I worked for did a project once that used glass block on a south-facing exterior wall. It was a high security facility w/ super spendalicious cameras & 24 hour guards. About 2 weeks after it was finished, there was an emergency call because of smoke. Yep. The blocks acted like a magnifying glass & caught a chair on fire. They were then sandblasted to make them opaque.

    I share your view of design competitions. The best reference is a job well done.*

    *my $0.02.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      So an architect *wink wink* you once worked for *wink wink* did it huh? I see…..

      If you come pick it up, I’ll give you a quarter for those thoughts.

      Thanks Becky, always appreciate your insight.

  • http://twitter.com/liraluis Lira Luis, AIA, RIBA

    This is a sad but true/reality as far as competitions are concerned. Even Frank Lloyd Wright loathes these types of competitions. Here’s why:
    “[Architectural] Competitions have never yet given the world anything worth having. [...] Now, the reason is this one reason, this isn’t the only reason, in every competition that goes through, the committee is first of all an average. [...] Then, the committee goes through the exhibit, picks out the best designs and the worst ones, and throws them out. Why? Because they can’t get together on the best one. That one is always a minority report. You see? The best ones have to go. The worst ones have to go. Then there is the average.” – FLW

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Lira,

      That is an excellent addition to this conversation.

      That Frank Lloyd Wright, he knew a thing or two didn’t he?

  • Anonymous

    I have to say, I stand somewhere in the middle between supporting competitions and loathing their existence. On the one hand, if you are a veteran designer with projects (and hence, money) coming in regularly, then design competitions are a waste of your time. That time would be better spent finding real clients with real projects. However, as someone who is just beginning their career who may or may not have a full time job (ehem), doing a few design competitions can really keep your mind sharp and your portfolio fresh. After about a year of working in a large architectural firm straight out of college, I realized I never got to design anything exciting (unless you think stairs, bathrooms and moving wall partitions are exciting). I decided to enter a design competition for a few reasons: to keep my design skills up, build my portfolio with something other than a single monstrous set of CDs, and prove to myself that I had the chops to do it. Honestly, I missed the intense design exercises like we had in school – one of the reasons I loved architecture.

    I ended up getting an honorable mention for my first competition design, and ended up getting a contract job lead from it. I decided to hone my skills further and enter a second iteration of the same competition (using feedback from the judges), and was selected as a finalist this time around. Though I didn’t win, I also got a lead from someone interested in producing the design in some fashion. While I did have to pay an entrance fee, it wasn’t a staggering amount. For $25, I was able to add two line items to my resume (helps me stand out among unemployed peers), I built up my portfolio to include more residential projects (helping to broaden my overall portfolio scope), and I feel that I have a better understanding of managing a small project on my own. It taught me how to effectively budget my time and resources, and helped me learn how to manage those who worked with me. It sparked my interest in developing these designs into tangible products, while boosting my confidence as a young professional.

    In general, I think the purpose of a competition is to spur some sort of growth. If you’re in need of a portfolio makeover (which a normal job isn’t providing), a creative rekindling, or just something interesting to spice up your ‘down time’, then I think competitions are great. There are plenty of free competitions if money poses a problem (ethically or financially), and most designs really only take about 2 weeks to do. In the end, I sometimes choose competitions simply because I enjoy them. I don’t think spending money on them, if seen as a hobby, is a bad thing. How much do you spend on woodworking, or painting, or fishing, or any other hobby? Is $100 every quarter really that bad if it brings some sort of fulfillment or enjoyment? I think people who want to enter competitions just need to be honest about their motives: if you’re in it to win it and make millions, it is probably a waste of time. However, if it is just a hobby or creative boost, then I don’t see it as a bad thing.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Brinn,

      Thanks for submitting such a well thought out and detailed comment – I really appreciate you contributing to the conversation in this manner.

      I think you are comparing apples a pineapples just a bit. All the objectives you list as reasons to enter into a competition are valid but there are other, and I think better and more productive ways to achieve those objectives. There are places all over the place that could benefit from your abilities and you would get the opportunity to meet a real person in your community. This person would benefit from your assistance, all while singing your praises. You could meet someone like me working on a charity competition who is actually in a position to hire someone like you – and based on your design – maybe to do something other than stair, bathrooms and moving wall partition details.

      I know you are not in Dallas but did you know that you could enter the CASA Parade of Playhouses competition, part of which I am hosting through the AIA? I have raised the money so your entry would be free, your printing would be free AND somewhere between 5 and 8 of these playhouses will actually get built. All of that is a sidebar to the fact that it helps other people.

      I didn’t intend for this to be another spot for the Playhouse competition but it is an easy example of a competition that is worth doing, rather than an open and speculative competition that demeans your value by not benefiting everyone involved in the process.

      Getting to meet me would simple be the icing on top – right?

      • Anonymous

        If given a choice, helping out with a charity design, or teaming up with local professionals would win hands down. However, if a charitable cause isn’t hosting any competitions or events, I don’t see harm in pursuing other *worthwhile competitions if charitable ones are not available. (Note, not all competitions are worthwhile!) I see competitions as just another way to diversify and participate in other aspects of design/architecture. That’s part of the reason I joined Houston’s AIA education committee; so I can be involved in another aspect of the profession (and help others at the same time through education, events, and sometimes design exercises). I’d like to see the hosts of competitions provide more incentive to participate; perhaps donating entry fees to charities, etc. I agree the competition hosts are often just there to make a buck on the publicity starved designers. What could we do to change that? It seems there could be much more potential within a design competition. Perhaps showcasing the projects to the local communities, getting the designers connected with their cities, providing educational experiences through the competition, etc. etc. Right now there is a disconnect between the idea of making the world a better place through design and the competitions that promote themselves as a means to do that (some do, others not so much)…

  • Anonymous

    The best “competition” that kills me is when a contractor or developer calls you up and wants you to come up with a schematic design so they can submit it with their RFP for a project they are going after. You’ll “get” the project if they “get” the project. It’s like a sneaky way of getting you to design for free for something that will never get built.

    Also, competitions, especially when the stararchitects are involved inevitably produce extremely over budget work that will never get built, cause ego conflicts and leave the citizens of the city who sponsored it left with…nothing. So the question is who really loses in these competitions?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Everybody that matters.

      I am really at a loss as to why these things exists – who convinced those who enter these open competitions that anything will come out of their efforts?

      It’s killing me

  • Anonymous

    This post had me rolling on the floor laughing! Yes, glass block is evil and yes, design competitions are a waste of resources. The amount of propaganda from design competitions in my inbox is insane and sometimes I have a lapse of judgment and think it might be worth it. I quickly recover and realize I am better off spending my time cleaning out the gutters on my house, or simply working on a project for someone who appreciates the design skills I bring to the table.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Cheers! Thanks for taking the time to comment (particularly since you agreed with me and thought that it was funny. Feel free to comment often)

      I got an email yesterday asking to enter a competition which is what made me write this post. There really does seem to be a line between those that think competitions are good and those that think they are a waste of time. Just my opinion here, but I think everyone know nows where you and I stand on the subject.

  • http://twitter.com/nickyb85 Nick Banks

    There is a house around the corner from me that thought (for some reason or another) it would be a good idea to enclose the entire front porch of their 1930-40′s bungalow in glass block. I will have to get a picture to share this gratuitous use of material.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Please do – I am going to start a library of photos of terrible-bad nasty things.

      I nervously await your email …

      Bob

    • http://twitter.com/nickyb85 Nick Banks

      I am not going to lie, I have been stupid busy the last couple of weeks. But then it dawned on me.. the power of the internet. http://bit.ly/h11Hot

  • scott

    So, what you’re telling me is that I should include glass block in my entry for the Play house competition?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hah! (ps – when are we going out for beers? I can give you your sweet desk lamp)

  • Alistair

    I once specified glass blocks for a new bathroom extension. That was a mistake; the blocks started as translucent and then became transparent when wet. Unfortunately, I put them in the external wall, whoops! unless of course you’re the neighbour. I cannot say too much more; I need to protect my insurance policy!

    Totally agree on the competitions. I once entered a competition not long out of college; I spent a lot of time and money only to lose to someone who looked like they’d spent a total of ten minutes on the concept and the presentation. Never again.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Sounds like you learned your lesson the hard way.

      I never spent the time to enter a competition before so I can’t say that I ever fell victim to her trappings. I thought about it a few times when I was a young architect but always decided against it for some reason. Some architecture school seem to have a love affair with competitions and use them as the programming for their design studios (i.e. – you work on the competition design and drawings during the semester and turn in what is essentially your studio project).

      and I really don’t like glass block.