Four-time Academy Award-winning actor Katherine Hepburn once said: “As for me, prizes are nothing.… My prize is my work.” The sentiment is easy to appreciate, especially in the motion picture industry, where consumption of the artform by a wide audience is critical to its success and an achievement in its own right. But in a field like architecture, where the work is typically experienced by a smaller audience, many architects and designers yearn for the validation and promotion that come with a formal award.

Design awards programs, whose audiences include both the architecture community and those who patronize it, serve multiple purposes. They are important in their effort to scrutinize and elevate the best work submitted each year. They also showcase architectural aspirations, and when conducted in a fair manner, they bring legitimacy to innovation. In addition, a well-prepared award submission provides the discipline for excellent marketing material, even if no formal recognition is received.

The Texas Society of Architects Design Awards program strives to accomplish these goals through its mission “to recognize outstanding architectural and urban design projects by architects practicing in Texas to promote public interest in design excellence.” This year, the program received 234 entries — a 50 percent increase over the year prior — to the delight of the Design Awards committee. While that may read as bad news for architects wishing to improve their odds of receiving recognition, it is excellent for the future of the awards program and for the goal of elevating great design in Texas.

What does it take to win a design award? It’s a simple question with a very complex answer. This year, as in the past, the instructions to the jury focused on merit. There were no categories; there were no restrictions on how the design awards were selected. The process was developed by the jury during the deliberations, in a manner of their own choosing. The submissions were anonymous, and questions from the jury regarding projects were addressed only with statements noted in the submission.

Observing these deliberations is a fascinating process and a rewarding aspect of involvement with the committee. From the sidelines, we quietly watch the jury develop their own system of recognizing — fairly — the work submitted. Jurors are incentivized to arrive early and spend time together over the two-plus-day process. This affords them the opportunity to build trust with each other and work collectively. Few things in architecture happen so quickly and with such thrilling results as a good jury finalizing their selections.

The TxA Design Awards program is held in high regard, and this is due largely to the quality of work in Texas. It is also due to the integrity of the program, and TxA’s willingness to invest in building a great jury each year — something the committee begins working on nearly a year in advance.

Jury selection is a collaborative process in which a diverse group of volunteers and staff identify a dynamic slate of thinkers, innovators, and experts who have proven ability to elevate and educate us with their critical-thinking skills. A candidate’s professional persona, diversity of experience, background, and location all factor into the selection process. 

On April 20–21, we were honored to convene a dynamic and thoughtful jury. Paola Calzada, the founder of her eponymous small firm located in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, brought a focus on comprehensive interdisciplinary sustainable design. Thomas Robinson, AIA, the founder and principal of LEVER Architecture in Portland, Oregon, contributed his experience in innovative building material use that is also focused on sustainable practices. Complementing them was Douglass Alligood, AIA, NOMA, a New York-based partner at Bjarke Ingels Group, who brought expertise in the planning and design of large-scale, complex projects.

Prior to gathering at the TxA office, the jury was sent copies of all 234 entries with the assignment to independently review each submission and provide an initial non-binding recommendation on whether or not to award the project. Once in the same room, the jurors worked effectively to develop and communicate their goals collaboratively. This included discussions on the importance of a great idea versus the execution of a good idea. They verbalized the value they placed on the consistency of a project and the story of its purpose. Candidly, they agreed that the quality of the imagery and photography was fundamental to how they viewed a design. As an observer, I imagine that the sheer number of submissions forces the jury to be expedient in their initial review. Only upon subsequent discussion could they curtail the submissions into a manageable group. This was a fair and inclusive process in which jurors were able to voice their individual thoughts, ultimately arriving at 23 award-winning projects.

Each year, many previously unrecognized projects are resubmitted, and often the entry has been further refined. A critical factor that impacts success in a given year is the fact that each jury is different and views each project uniquely, and each submission is viewed in the context of other projects submitted that same year. The ability to show only the best supporting documents and imagery to tell a concise story is fundamental to success in this program.

Of this year’s submissions, 47 percent were by firms located in Austin, 18 percent by firms in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, 12 percent by Houston firms, 9 percent by San Antonio firms, 9 percent by firms in other areas of Texas, and 4 percent by firms outside of Texas. 

Projects in Austin comprised 35 percent of the projects submitted; Houston, 15 percent; the DFW area, 14 percent; San Antonio, 4 percent; other areas of Texas, 24 percent; and projects outside of Texas, 8 percent. Of the 23 winning projects, 11 are located in Austin, four in Houston, one in Dallas, one in San Antonio, four in other areas of Texas, and two outside of Texas. 

Thirty-eight percent of submissions were residential construction and 62 percent non-residential. Winning projects included 13 residences and 10 non-residential works.

Reflecting upon this jury’s findings and the high quality of work recognized should bring great pride and inspiration to our architectural community in Texas. Each award presents us all with a call and a challenge to elevate our own work in order to make our built environment as effective, sustainable, and inspiring as possible.

James Adams, AIA, is the chair-elect of the TxA Design and Studio Awards Committee and an architect at Corgan in Dallas.

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