Clockwise from top left: Cary Bernstein, John Rusk, Karman Hotchkiss, and Erik Listou
Clockwise from top left: Cary Bernstein, John Rusk, Karman Hotchkiss, and Erik Listou

The Remodeling Design Awards is a competitive contest. While deciding on the winners, our judges discussed each project at length, identified the projects’ strengths and weaknesses, and debated which ones deserved an award. With over 200 entries to choose from, it was no easy task for them to choose the 16 winners of this year’s RMDA. With that many competitors, it’s important to make your project, and your application, stand out among the crowd.

So what can you do to make your application a knockout? We spoke with our judges to find out.

The Major Mistakes

“Professional photography goes a long way,” Cary Bernstein, principal of Cary Bernstein Architect, says. “It’s an expense for some people, but the professional photographs stand out.”

“Whatever the quality of the photographs is assumed to be the quality of the work,” John Rusk, president and founder of Rusk Renovations. “Good photos take time and cost money to do well.” Professionally taken photographs of the finished project will not only make the project look better, but will also let judges have an easier time viewing all of the hard work it took to make the space look great.

Another piece of advice from the judges is to make sure your photographs depict the project only. “[Some photographs] had graphic distractions on the pages [such as] text or borders or page layouts that really deflected attention away from the project,” Bernstein says.

While the after photos are the images that truly show off a project, this doesn’t mean that the before photos can be neglected. Our judges recommend including before photos that echo the finished project. “I think photos that don’t clearly explain what happened is probably one of the worst things that somebody can do,” Karman Hotchkiss, executive editor for shelter-related magazines at Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publications, says. “The photos that you include need to tell the story.”

“Without seeing the before picture, it’s hard to know what has been done,” Erik Listou, co-founder of the Living in Place Institute, says.

While photo suggestions were at the top of the judges’ lists of entry improvements applicants could make, another concern was the professionalism of the submissions.

“The quality of presentation makes a difference,” Bernstein says. “The poor writing in the text and poor editing shows a lack of care. For a project on the line in the judge’s mind, that’s not going to help.” Bernstein also suggests that if applicants aren’t sure how to best present their projects, they should consider consulting a marketing expert to create the best possible submission.

Another concern? The project descriptions. “Finding some balance between brevity and enough information that someone understands it is key,” Hotchkiss says. “Depending on the scope of the project, 300-500 words is the amount of information a judge can comprehend without starting to feel like [they need to start skimming]. Less than that and you’re not giving me enough to understand why this is special.”

“It’s important to highly edit the descriptions to just what is the special thing about that project that is different and unique,” Rusk says. “So, the special challenge, the special feature, the special innovation, that makes it important.”

“[The project descriptions] are all about the client,” Listou says. “Not the team, not the designers. That’s a mistake many people make … The write-ups should include the client’s problems and how the team solved those problems.”

Overall, the judges are looking for projects that stand out. “We’re looking for something where we can say ‘Wow! What a great new idea!’” Rusk says.

How to Choose Your Project
While our judges can’t guarantee what kinds of project will win each year, they did provide tips for choosing which project(s) to submit to the design awards.

“You see a general trend in the way the judges are judging and if your project is not in step with that trend, you have to make a case for why your project [deserves an award],” Bernstein says.

Listou suggests choosing projects “that make the largest impact on the quality of life for the client,” while Hotchkiss recommends that you "pick the [project] that you think is truly outstanding.”

“Projects that are really well photographed, with beautiful furnishings, and art in the photos,” Rusk says. He further stresses that the wow factor of a project is important to the judges. “If [applicants] have two projects and one is well done, but kind of boring, and one has some unique, exciting ideas, but is a little rougher, I’m more interested in that second project. Something that pushes us all to the next level, inspires us to new ideas, and pushes us all further along.”