For high school students like yourself who are interested in architecture and urban planning, participating in internships and competitions is particularly critical. It provides you exposure and practical experience, allowing you to apply the theory you have been learning to actual projects and getting some problem-solving experience in.
This rounds out your profile and makes it stand out when you apply to architectural programs in college.
Today’s blog post focuses on one such competition that you should participate in, the 120 Hours challenge.
What is 120 Hours?
120 Hours is an international online architectural competition, claiming to be the world's largest such competition created for and by architecture students. It is organized by the 120 Hours nonprofit, and open to all students of all ages and backgrounds across the world to showcase their architectural prowess. The competition, which spans a titular 120 hours from challenge release to submission, encourages participants to think outside the box and address complex, socially relevant problems through their architectural designs. The competition aims to give students a voice in contemporary architectural discourse, offering a unique learning experience and a chance to make your mark in the architectural community.
Is it prestigious?
The biggest driving factor behind the prestige of 120 Hours is that it’s a platform where you get to compete with peers with much greater experience than you, and potentially win against them. Over the years, 120 Hours has grown in popularity, from a few dozen entries earlier to nearly 300 entries from 62 countries in 2023. What this means is that if you’re able to secure a podium finish, you will prove your skill and talent on a global platform against far more experienced peers, making your profile much stronger.
Who is eligible for 120 Hours?
What makes 120 Hours unique is that any student anywhere in the world is eligible to try their hands at it. You can be a high schooler, a graduate, an undergraduate, even masters students can compete. There is no requirement of prior architectural experience, all you need is a valid student ID or if you’re transitioning between degrees, then you’ll need to provide your previous ID and a declaration of intent to continue your studies.
An interesting thing to note here is that if you happen to win (or end up as a finalist) the competition, it is a super prestigious laurel to showcase on your resume, as you would have competed against students far more experienced in the field (such as masters and graduate students), demonstrating your skills.
How does the application process work?
To apply for 120 Hours, you will need to sign up on their website. A few things to keep in mind are:
There is no entry fee or registration cost, the competition is free to enter!
You can enroll either as an individual or in teams of up to three people.
As mentioned above, you will need to provide your student ID or proof of continuing studies.
Currently the dates for 120 Hours 2024 have not yet been posted, however the 2023 iteration had a deadline of 1st April.
How is 120 Hours structured?
120 Hours is designed with a time-limited task based structure. The prompt will be released on a common time for all participants across the globe, with the submission deadline being exactly 120 hours after. You will be given a design task, along with an accompanying writing task. The task for 2023 for example had a theme of Sustainability and required four images describing the “biography” of a building in a coherent narrative, accompanied by a write-up of whether or not the building had a sustainable life. You will have to fit your submission on two A3 sheets and upload a high resolution digital copy on the link provided.
Competition entries are typically judged by four criteria:
Storytelling / narrative
Should your entry be selected, you stand to win the following prizes:
1st Prize: 30,000 NOK (~$2,900)
2nd Prize: 15,000 NOK (~$1,400)
3rd Prize: 7,500 NOK (~$700)
10 Tips to Help You Win 120 Hours
If all this has you rearing to apply, here’s a few tips that we hope will help you reach a podium finish:
Understand the brief: Fully grasp the problem statement. Past winners often succeeded by going deep into understanding the core issue. Remember that 120 Hours expects you to deliver a deep, critical narrative around their theme, which will only happen if you’re able to analyze it thoroughly from multiple viewpoints and then develop your own expression.
Plan your time: With only 120 hours, effective time management is crucial. You will need to allocate adequate time for the initial analysis, brainstorming of ideas, creating the core design and narrative, and then at least some time for refining your work. We recommend creating strict cutoff times for each phase and attempting to work in parallel with your team members where possible, rather than sequentially. This brings us to the next point.
Embrace teamwork: Since 120 Hours is an open competition where any student can participate, it is entirely likely you will be going toe-to-toe with architecture masters and graduates. If you want to succeed, we strongly recommend you build a team to be able to maximize your individual strengths and shore up weaknesses. It’s even better if you’re able to seek out and partner with interested peers from other academic backgrounds or more knowledgeable than you, like architecture or urban planning graduates. Collaborate and play to each team member's strengths.
Seek inspiration from others: A quick look through the 120 Hours Archive provides a wealth of inspiration in terms of ideas, approaches, and presentations. You should especially check the winning entries from previous years, identifying key success metrics vs other entries, so that you know what to emulate. Look at past winners for inspiration, but strive for originality. This leads into our next point.
Focus on originality: A big chunk of the scoring criteria is how unexpected and innovative your submission is. Accordingly, a good portion of your 120 hours should be dedicated to brainstorming to come up with the most unique and innovative idea possible. However, you should keep the next point in mind.
Simplicity is key: Often, simple, elegant solutions triumph over complex ones. If you go through the archive linked above, many of the winning entries from previous years were simple, subtle presentations like this submission from the Hanoi Architectural University. It utilized the A3 paper itself to tell its story of sustainability.
Be detailed, be thorough: Pay attention to the small details in your design. Like in the example linked above, bringing the viewer’s attention to oft-missed details and telling a story through them makes for a powerful tool. Regardless of how you choose to weave your narrative, use your images and resources in it well.
Present masterfully: How you present your idea is as important as the idea itself. A big chunk of your score depends on the graphical presentation of your submission, though you are free to make it digitally, by hand, or even with photographs. Let your creative juices flow for this one!
Be ready to adapt: Sometimes, it’s possible that the idea you start with ends up being too difficult or impractical to translate. Be prepared for this eventuality by ideally having a small number of interconnected ideas you can pivot to if one doesn’t pan out.
Make some time and space for feedback: Ideally, keep some time in those 120 hours to share your design with a teacher or a mentor, someone who can look at it from a neutral perspective and give you actionable feedback. Try to incorporate the changes from that feedback in your final submission to give it that much stronger a chance at winning.
Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you’re keen on pursuing in-depth research in design, architecture, and urban planning, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.
Image Source: 120 Hours logo