Design-Thinking Crash Course as an AIA Awards Judge

Imagine diving into a review of 304 design projects, spending 280 hours dedicated to thinking about design and what makes a good design project, and finally, voting for your top choice. If that sounds intense, it was. However, it was also an incredibly collaborative and illuminating experience. This is what it takes to be a juror for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2019 awards program.


I began reviewing submissions on August 17, and I kept up a pace of nine each day to make it through them all on schedule. I finished on September 20. It was a grueling process! Projects were scored in multiple categories, along with an overall score. We had to provide written comments for each project, and I soon began to see a pattern in what I felt distinguished a high quality submittal from one that needed more work.

Getting it Right

From a judge’s perspective, the submittal is just as important as the project itself — ultimately, it’s how you assign points and make a determination. The best ones all had similar traits and included:

1) A written summary for each category, avoiding the dreaded “not applicable.” Following all directions, no matter how minor, was an immediate signal that the submitting firm took the process seriously. In design, details matter.

2) All pertinent information, including the client’s perspective. The design solution is key, but so is knowing exactly how the design solution met the client’s specific needs, and how the client felt about the project when it was complete. Having the client not only in your corner, but also contributing to the submittal is A+ material.

3) A consistent and succinct story throughout. Submissions clearly expressing the project intentions and distinguishing design aspects through written narratives, as well as the supporting drawings, diagrams, and photographs rose to the top.

4) Innovative, sustainability strategies. Demonstrating an understanding of long-term impact and benefits to future generations was high on my list.

5) A strong overall design, conveying a place I would like to visit and experience. Ultimately, I was drawn to projects that possessed an elegant simplicity.

As I thought about the process for my independent reviews, I was excited to meet with the other jurors to learn more about their perspectives and what qualified as an excellent submission to each of them.

Camaraderie and Consensus

On September 23, I arrived to a rainy Washington, D.C., for the in-person jury deliberations. As I waited in line for a taxi, I began to mentally prepare for at least 20 hours of discussion over the next two days, and I made a note to get a good night’s sleep.

The following day, our diverse group of jurors from around the country settled into the executive conference room at AIA headquarters, and we made an immediate connection due to the intense process thus far. We were all grateful to be on to the next step together!

The 2019 AIA Awards jurors get down to business as they review more than 100 submissions. Shannon is pictured at the far left. 

AIA staff had narrowed our list down to the top third (about 100) to review alphabetically, however, no project was off the table. As jurors, we could bring back any project we liked. Nothing was officially cut.

Conversations about the individual merits of each project flowed naturally with each of us taking turns to be the first to comment. Many jurors were either previous winners or were from award-winning firms, however, everyone left their egos at the door. Each person — including a non-architect and an architecture student — brought a valuable and unique perspective. The major thing we had in common: a passion for good design.

We categorized projects into yes, maybe, and no. I spoke up when I had a strong opinion on a project and hung back and listened if I felt neutral. I appreciated hearing the perspectives of others, which on a couple occasions changed my opinion; other times, the argument wasn’t quite convincing enough.

The final task of the day was to revisit the maybe list. These second reviews moved quickly. I made an appeal for my top project, but could not convince my fellow jurors and conceded it to the no list. At the end of the day, after just over 13 hours, we had a list of finalists to sleep on.

The Homestretch

We arrived on the second day with fresh minds to complete our charge. We revisited the list of finalists, narrowed it down further, and had the winners in hand.

With decisions on the overall Architecture Awards made, we began our review of the Twenty-five Year Award entries. This award recognizes a project completed 25-35 years ago that remains in good condition, has not had significant alterations, and has stood the test of time. As this was a smaller list, we reviewed each project to discuss its merits and narrowed it down to a final few for site visits. This is an architect’s dream come true, viewing in-person some of the best architecture in the country, and in the world. Firms are not notified they are finalists, but each lists a project contact who arranges the site visit. During each visit, we asked questions, took notes and additional photographs to review during our team meeting.

When we met up again, each juror presented the project they had visited, including design details that stood out or are still relevant today, as well as strengths and weaknesses. In the end, the jury came away with consensus on the Twenty-Five Year Award winner: The Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, created by Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA.

The Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London balances old and new as a home to one of the world’s most visited collections of early Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings. Image credit: Getty

For the overall AIA Architecture Awards, the winners span high-profile public projects such as the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the TIRPITZ Museum in Denmark, to an elementary school in Tacoma, Washington, and a modest residential development in New Orleans, to the restoration of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia and the adaptive reuse of a 1.3 million square foot Sear’s Warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee.

View from the interior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Image credit: Alan Karchmer

One of the winning projects that I had the privilege of visiting is Confluence Park, a living laboratory on the bank of the San Antonio River.

The purpose of Confluence Park is to serve as a living laboratory, providing greater understanding of south Texas eco-types and the impact of urban development on local watersheds. Image credit: Casey Dunn

Being a judge for the AIA Awards took more time than any other volunteer effort I have committed myself to, and it’s also one I wouldn’t trade for anything. I feel it helped me grow as an architect and as a person, and I get to say I had a hand in highlighting stunning work from architects around the world. Congratulations to all of the winners, and best of luck to the judges in 2020!

Check out all the winners here. Which one is your favorite?