It’s a new year, which brings new opportunities for your firm to show your work in award competitions. But how do you put together a wining submission? Here are some suggestions…

A number of years ago, a construction firm entered an award program with the perfect project to win the grand prize. (This is a true story, so I’ll leave out the names). It was a very large project and very well known. The construction process went flawlessly and the media buzz was intense. Its competition, while worthy, wasn’t in league. Truly, this was a perfect project to win the grand prize…but it didn’t. It came in second. Why? That was everyone’s question.

Come to find out, the judges felt that the presentation of the entry and the story was half-hearted. It was almost like they expected to win, and therefore didn’t bother with a top-notch submission. The competition on the other hand had a great project and a great submission, which was weighed into their score and tipped the scales in their favor.

What a shame. Everyone was truly disappointed as I’m sure the judges were too. After all, I’m sure they took a lot of heat for their decision.

Since then, many have wondered what makes a winning submission. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I can tell you what I’ve learned in my 22 years of experience working on submissions with various creative teams.

But first, let me make it clear that what I am talking about here is a “perfect submission” not a perfect architectural design or construction project. That was the mistake in my example. They had a perfect project, but they lost because of a lack-luster submission.

Vail’s Front Door by Hyder Construction, 2008 ACE Winner

Here is what I’ve learned through the years:

1: Pick The Right Project:

Yes, you still have to have a great project to submit. One of the tricks I’ve learned is when not to submit a project. You need to know your competition and what they are building and likely to submit. If you are going head-to-head with a better project, you might be better off waiting until the following year. Check your submission rules and see if the project completion date will qualify for the following year. Or, if possible, enter it into a different category. The idea is to win the ACE, not second place.

2: Know The Rules

Paramount in winning first place is understanding the rules of the contest and how the judges weigh the elements of the submission. Check the websites of American Institute of Architects, Associated General Contractors and Association of Builders and Contractors for updates and entry rules. For example, the Association of Builders and Contractors submission rules weigh the narrative at 30 percent, the photography at 8 percent, and overall presentation at 5 percent. That is 43 percent of the contest that is directly related to your submission!

3: Compose A Great Story

You might think that since I’m a photographer, I’m going to tell you that it’s all about

Chieftain Building by Drahota Construction, 2000 ACE Winner

having great photography. I’ll get to that in a minute, but the truth is that the key to winning is having a great story to tell.

We have all been to movies that had wiz-bang special effects and almost no story to tell. You probably left the movie feeling you wasted $10. Don’t make the mistake of letting the judges get that feeling from your narrative. This is where you really need to invest your time and energy. If you’re not a great storyteller, hire someone who is. Then, visit the project site. Interview the Project Manager, as well as sub-contractors. Get the inside scoop on the difficulties that must be overcome. If the project has historical importance, make sure you include that too.

4: Supply Dramatic Photography

While it’s not typically scored as high as the narrative, you don’t want to lose because your photography was sub-standard. Judges are influenced by dramatic photography that tell a story visually. If your narrative includes drama (and it should), your photography should be equally dramatic. The old adage is true: a picture is worth a thousand words. Make every image count a thousand words in your favor. You will want these images to compliment the narrative as much as possible.

Fitzimmons Plant by Natkin Contracting, 2002 ACE Winner

These contests are often won by very slim margins. If you and your competition have similar projects and a great narrative, it could come down to the presentation of the photography. A one-point advantage is all it takes to win.

Here are some guidelines for receiving the best photography for your submission:

1. Make sure your photographer is experienced at shooting architecture, especially if they are shooting on an active construction site. This is not the time to hire your friend or a wedding photographer.

2. The photography should compliment the narrative. If possible, give a rough draft of the narrative to the photographer. Ideally, the photographs will visually display the narrated story. This is especially important when the narrative is speaking about challenging events in the construction process.

3. Use a mix of in-progress construction images, and final completed construction images in your submission. If you don’t have the budget to hire all of it done professionally, at least hire the completed construction portion out. Typically, these images are used to showcase your project in a variety of ways such as framed prints at the award banquet, sent to the media or used on competition websites. You will want these to be exceptional quality and professionally produced.


Final Tips:

Begin the process early in the season. Start by asking your management team now about possible projects to submit. This gives you a head start on you competition and allows you time to put together your creative team. This is particularly important when trying to capture important progress photos.


Having an on-site planning meeting with your writer, photographer and Project Manager is a great way to get your creative team on the same page. It allows them the opportunity to:

1. Ask questions and understand the challenges of the project.

2. Develop a time-line for photo shoots with the intent of capturing construction challenges. Remember, you can’t photograph what is already covered up.

3. See in advance what they are writing about or photographing.

In conclusion, no one can guarantee a win on your next entry, and this isn’t intended to be a complete thesis on the perfect submission. But I have seen these steps used in many winning submissions.

Here’s to a great award season!