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    Credit: Chao Po-Yu

Architectural ideas competitions are everywhere and some may say hard to distinguish from one to another, but they remain crucial for stimulating new ideas about good design, engaging industry members, and creating a dialogue with the public. Two groups of Denver-based architects—the Denver Architectural League (DAL) and Fentress Architects—have hosted a series of global competitions over the last few decades that have marked the Mile High City as a nexus of innovation, with a particular emphasis on emerging professionals.

In 1986, an economy slowly recovering from recession helped spur 10 young Denver architects to found the DAL. “We were getting bored,” says Jeffrey Sheppard, AIA, principal and co-founder of Roth Sheppard Architects. “We weren’t being stimulated, so we initiated the competition to stay motivated and excited about design. We were then able to convince the landlord of a downtown high-rise to let us turn the lobby into a gallery, and 400 to 500 people—architects, designers, artists, developers, the public, and local media—attended the opening reception.”

After the success of the initial competition, DAL had intended to host a competition every year. “It’s amazing how quickly two decades goes by. We never quite got it together,” Sheppard recalls. “But in 2011 we saw a need once again. We were just beginning to see signs of the economy’s recovery, so we initiated the Micro House Ideas Competition to re-energize emerging professionals and the community,” he explains.

The competition garnered 100 entries, mainly from Colorado, divided equally between students, recent graduates, and young professionals working in firms. Local media, international blogs and websites, as well as AIA Colorado and its local chapters, helped spread the word.

Rather than wait another 25 years between competitions, DAL members decided to host them biennially. AIA Denver sponsored the 2011 competition and a second one in 2013, allowing DAL to present cash prizes. This year’s ideas competition, based on an expanding typology—micro housing—“was inspired by a concern about the lack of innovation evident in Denver’s existing multifamily housing market, where many banal buildings are springing up,” Sheppard says. “With this competition, designers have the opportunity to explore the future, question the past, and reinvent the notion of responsible, affordable housing.”

DAL members Sheppard, Michael Brendle, FAIA, and Kimble Hobbs, AIA, worked with the University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning to get students involved in the rebooted DAL competitions, which offer students an opportunity to compete against professionals. Several studios selected it as an alternative project.

The 2013 Micro House Ideas Competition is based on hypothetical conditions (not for sale or scheduled for development) on a real site across from the TAXI development in Denver’s thriving mixed-use, semi-industrial River North neighborhood. The program consists of eight housing units, along with requirements for an entrance identity for the TAXI community; public access to the river for recreation; affordable design; modularity and prefabrication; “thriveability” as it relates to natural ecologies and human activity; and appropriate uses of technology, materials, and building systems. Each unit must be no larger than 375 gross square feet, and designers are encouraged to foster community interaction and connection.

Future Focused

The annual Fentress Global Challenge is an international design competition created to engage students worldwide in the exploration of future possibilities in public architecture. Instituted in 2011 and administered by Denver-based Fentress Architects, it operates for the sole benefit of architecture students. While the Fentress competition began near the tail end of the global credit crisis, the firm focused on creating a creative outlet for participants, rather than designing solutions for economic recovery. Still, the Great Recession may have contributed to the remarkable number of responses to the competition: In the two years that the competition has occurred, students from more than 70 countries have responded to the call for entries.

“We started the Fentress Global Challenge to promote advancement of the design profession; it provides one way for our firm to give back,” says Michael Winters, FAIA, principal and director of design and interiors at Fentress Architects. Part of giving back is the competition’s perennial focus on public architecture, which is one of Fentress’s areas of expertise. In 2010, AIA honored Curtis Fentress, FAIA, with the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture. The Fentress Global Challenge demonstrates the firm’s commitment to furthering the mission of the Jefferson Award, by furthering innovative design in public architecture.

In 2011, jurors reviewed 200 innovative solutions from around the world on the topic “Airport of the Future.” Designs were evaluated by their creativity, responsiveness to site, sustainability, and functionality. To showcase the work of tomorrow’s architects to the general public, the top three designs appeared in the traveling exhibition “Now Boarding: Fentress Airports + The Architecture of Flight,” which has already reached over 100,000 museumgoers in Denver and Amsterdam, and at the Museum of Flying in Los Angeles (with companion exhibitions at L.A.’s Architecture and Design and Flight Path museums).

The second year’s theme—Workplace of the Future—encouraged architecture and interior design students to consider the fundamental purposes of a workplace as well as future functionality and design. Again, Fentress received nearly 200 submissions. The winning project, by University of Edinburgh students Chi Hsiao, Hung-Yu Lin, and Po-Yu Chao, focuses on rural communities, rather than urban ones, in establishing a future workplace. So-called “intelligent farming” could optimize rural space through data crunching and adjusting land-use patterns according to a shifting set of economic and environmental factors that are linked to the nearby cities. It’s a model that asks us to reconsider historically market-driven concepts such as supply and demand with a new mandate for sustainability, a model which could have a big impact on regional design practices in the coming decades.

Sustainability is a troubled concept, though. For DAL’s Sheppard, it may have become an ineffectual industry buzzword. “ ‘Sustain’ means to sustain what you are doing right now, but ‘Thriveability’ and ‘regenerative design,’ as approaches, transcend sustainability,” Sheppard says. “We wanted to make this competition relevant. The single-family house has run its course. The goal is to make developers and consumers see that there are alternatives to traditional multifamily housing.”

Fentress offers a different, firm-centric approach to fostering progressive design. “We started with airport design because that is one of our strongest areas of expertise, and we wanted to provide insight in our initial competition,” he says. The Workplace of the Future challenge opened up the creative thought process by letting entrants explore theoretical ideas. The program stands apart from other competitions because, in addition to cash prizes, the firm offers internships to the competition’s winner. “We want to aid in the development of students’ careers by letting them work in a real environment,” Winters says, “so that they have the opportunity to compare total creative freedom to the reality of practice.”

Why a global competition? “Today, everything is global,” Winters says, “and it raises the bar for students when they know they are competing with people from around the world.”

The competitions have a reflexive benefit, as well, for their organizers. “They have energized and inspired us. They provide an opportunity to collaborate with other industry professionals,” Winters says. “The desire to create innovative design is out there, and these challenges feed our creative appetites.”

The 2013 Fentress Global Challenge is accepting entries for “Upcycled Architecture.” Learn more at fentressarchitects.com.