Architects Compete For Residential Jobs

Architectural competitions, such as one for the design of Bill Gates' home won by Jim Cutler and Peter Bohlin, are nothing new, but most are held by institutions: universities, fine-arts museums, city halls. Those are generally nonfee, that is, the architects who enter them design those structures on their own nickel.

But private competitions, held by individuals for a residence, and designed by architects for a fee, are rare, especially in the Northwest.

They incorporate a wide array of architectural work at the beginning, rather like being faced with a glass counter in a candy store, except that the bonbons and truffles are various styles of design. And toward the end of a fee-paid competition, the clients get to take a bite of the goods when they receive designs that are fairly far along in the design process.

Paul Allen, Gates' former partner in Microsoft, held what was probably this area's first private competition, for his Mercer Island house. (Charles Moore, an Austin, Texas, architect with offices in California, won that one.)

Michael Doss, a Seattle architect as well as professional counsel, administered both the Allen and Gates competitions and has done several nationwide.

First, he invites as many as 30 architects and never less than 15 to submit qualifications. When their portfolios arrive, the client looks them over and chooses six or seven firms. Then, after interviews and tours of the architects' offices, the list is narrowed to three; three because two run the risk of being combatants, playing off each other's weaknesses, Doss says. At that point a fee kicks in. Doss won't say what it was in Gates' case, but local architects estimate about $120,000 for each competitor.

The finalists are chosen because of their diversity. In the case of the Gates competition, there was a quite modern entry by Boston architect Peter Forbes; Cutler and Bohlin's understated and what Doss calls ``quiet'' design; and Charles Moore's design that was ``in the middle.''

The client then puts together some concepts: attitudes toward things such as light and space, and some of the systems that need to be in the house. When the architects get that, they set to work on design.

Through the design period, Doss, who if he played poker would make a formidable opponent, says he's never tempted to talk to the competitors about each others' designs, even if he thinks one architect has a fabulous idea.

``It's rewarding to see three different solutions and the creativity of a team that's really their own. If I suggest ideas, it would affect the power of the design,'' he says.

After about three months, the competitors present models and designs, each making a separate presentation to the client. Only then do they get to see the other architects' work.

Models and presentations are important to competitions, Doss says, and are fun, too. Architects bring in everything from 10-foot-long sketches to vignettes to computer-animated walk-throughs. Cutler and Bohlin presented their renderings in two linen boxes.

The client, says Doss, can't lose, no matter what the choice.