Canadian Consulting Engineer

What makes a winner?

October 1, 2000
By Bronwen Ledger

Awards programs have their good side, and their bad side. On the one hand, they are an important marker, a signifier. They represent a pinnacle to aim for in a landscape that would otherwise be an und...

Awards programs have their good side, and their bad side. On the one hand, they are an important marker, a signifier. They represent a pinnacle to aim for in a landscape that would otherwise be an undifferentiated, flat horizon of toil. They are one of the few measures of achievement left in our society not tagged to the dollar sign. Plus, it feels great when you go up to the podium to receive your award plaque, and for a few seconds get to bask in the warmth of applause and acclaim.

On the other hand, awards can create as much disappointment and disillusion as joy. For those not called to the winners’ podium, it is frustrating to see a project that they have lived and breathed with, sometimes for years, passed by. As the person who has to write letters to the unsuccessful entrants in the Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards, I’m always cringing inside as I search for the right words.

The truth is there are numerous projects that are huge successes from the public’s, the client’s and the consulting engineer’s points of view that do not win awards. Jurors realize they are under constraints to look out for the extraordinary over the excellent but more standard fare. That is why they are constantly explaining that they had such a difficult time choosing winners. I helped to administer the Canadian Architect awards for 10 years before I came to this magazine, and the situation there was exactly the same.

Some awards programs have tried to solve this dilemma by giving an award to everyone who enters. That solution is very generous and serves firms’ marketing departments well, but it surely defeats the whole object of the exercise and undermines the credibility of these programs. There’s no getting away from it — an awards program by its very nature is exclusory.

What, then, are awards juries usually looking for? What is it about a project that makes it stand out from the crowd? There is no easy answer. Our jurors are given a list of criteria (see p. 28), and asked to look particularly for technical innovation. Unofficially, presentation is important, especially the written text. Pointing out what is unusual and technically advanced about the project in simple and accessible language is critical. But I have seen very poorly presented projects win awards, so even if Shakespeare were to write your copy, it might not win the day.

I have seen juries follow various methods for making their decisions. Some juries rely on a process of elimination and discussion. Others like to be mathematically precise and will follow a strict marking system. In the end, no matter how elaborate the computing method, it comes down to a matter of personal evaluation. The jury generally agrees on about 15 good projects, but has much more difficulty winnowing the numbers down to the final tally, and it is there that we see excellent projects having to be forfeited in order to come up with the chosen few.

But no matter whose project is chosen and whose is not, it’s important to keep in mind the big picture. The Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards are the best way we know to pay homage to engineers in private practice who are working in myriad ways to improve the physical conditions of the world for the benefit of human beings. Those words sound very grand, but a humanitarian aim is the true heart of all engineering projects, whether it be to provide clean water, safe harbour, or to improve an industrial process. The winners of the 2000 awards in this issue provide just a few examples of these kinds of endeavours. Congratulations to them all.Bronwen Ledger


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