Funded Programs

Unit Design Competition

The Unit Design Competition enables local concrete masonry producers and/or associations to work in conjunction with universities to sponsor competitions. Winning teams from each school are invited to participate in the national Unit Design Competition.

The objective of this special masonry competition is to understand the relationship between a specific material and a form made using that material. There are no preconceived “ideal” solutions to this project. Instead, the emphasis is placed on understanding the implications of your decisions and on making a series of related decisions about a form and its material. Explore alternatives and try to understand the trade-offs of each decision.

How to Set Up a Competition

Concrete masonry and hardscape units are an abundant but underutilized part of the designer’s palette. This product is a durable material that can be used to carry weight, enclose space, and perform a variety of functions in buildings and the built landscape. Because it is a manufactured material, its texture, color, shape and size are controllable features. A wide variety of concrete masonry and hardscape products are available and new ones can be proposed.

This project will be part of a student competition in unit design. Typically, student work will be evaluated by the faculty in this course as one of your exercises. In addition, students are also expected to submit your project for review by the competition jury hosted by the local masonry association and/or the local producers. The winner of the unit design competition at an individual school will be eligible to to compete at the National Unit Design Competition sponsored by the NCMA Education and Research Foundation.

Submission Requirements**


Design a new concrete masonry or hardscape unit that can be manufactured on a block machine or a big-board machine. The unit designed is to be conceived as a mass-produced unit with potential architectural or landscape applications. What are concrete masonry or hardscape units? What do they want to be? What could they be used for? The design should capitalize on the advantages offered by concrete masonry or hardscape as a material, a fabrication process and a use, while accommodating for the associated weaknesses. The design of the unit should conform to the following practical considerations:

1. ‘Box’ size: The ‘box’ that concrete masonry or hardscape units are molded in measures 16″wide x 24″long x 8″ high. It is important that the unit or units designed can be case in this box.

2. Shape must be extruded when molded: After the units are cast, the mold lifts up vertically, leaving the units behind on the table. The units are only in the mold for a few seconds. This means that the shape  casting is extruded vertically. To be extruded, it must have a consistent cross section in the z (vertical) axis when being cast. Protrusions or holes in the x and y axes are difficult to make. However, core pullers and other emerging technologies in unit production to accommodate these features are available and allowed.

3. Efficiency: Manufacturers have invested a lot of capital in this equipment, and want to profit with each cycle of the molding machine. To do so, either the units must have a high profit margin, or they must make many units in each cycle – preferably both. Try to make it so that units occupy at least 90% of the “box” each cycle.

4. Stable shapes: Concrete masonry or hardscape units are strong when cured, but are weak for the first few hours. To avoid the unit crumbling or cracking while it is being handled, make the minimum thickness of the unit at any point about 0.75″. Avoid acute angle shapes of less than about 60 degrees, because the corners tend be more difficult to fill in the mold and are vulnerable to getting broken later in transit.

Drawings that clearly illustrate the design intentions are required prior to the competition for course grading and during the competition for competitive judging (scale 1″ = 1′-0″):

Overall view of an assembly using the masonry unit(s) you designed, as well as non-masonry components such as adjoining materials, masonry accessories, etc. This drawing should show how the masonry units would be used in a plausible architectural application. This should be a series of perspectives, axonometric or isometric drawings, using color to represent the appearance of the materials. Include notes to explain your proposal and its intended application.

Prototype Model of the unit or units designed. This may be made of any material. It should be made to represent accurately the colors and textures of the units you propose. It is important to make a minimum of 4-6 so the interplay of units may be physically explored. The models should be full or half-scale.

General note: all drawings must be mounted on 11″ x 17″ boards (three boards maximum). Use color to represent those of the materials. Restrict identifying remarks in the submission to the back of the board; do not put names or other identifying marks on the front of the boards or on the prototype models. All competition entries will be judged during the day of the competition.

** Due to the uncertainty of future COVID-19 restrictions, submissions may be modified to accommodate the judging process. Students many need to provide a video approximately 5 minutes or less. Contact Brittaney Kamhong Thompson for further details.




Local concrete masonry producers and/or associates (the organizers of the competition) and their local universities, and the students who attend and are interested in competing.

Each team consists of four people.

One graduate student and three undergraduate students if class participation allows — or four undergraduate students.



National Competition:

  • 1st $250/team & Certificates
  • 2nd $150/team & Certificates
  • 3rd $100/team & Certificates
  • Honorable Mention Certificates

The top three teams from the national competition then will be provided transportation and lodging to present their designs at the NCMA Midyear Meetings generally held in the July/August timeframe each year.

An award ceremony will follow the presentations where the final ranking of the top three teams will be revealed and prizes awarded (four students maximum per team).

Local competitions typically also provide monetary awards and honorable mentions. The sponsor of the local competition should be consulted to determine awards.

Assessment Criteria


The drawings and the prototypes will be evaluated in terms of the following ranked criteria:

  • · use of modular coordination
  •  manufacturing efficiency
  • innovation
  • technical performance (potential stability, weathering resistance)
  • quality of craft and presentation (clear drawings, well constructed prototype, graphic appeal, etc.)

National Competition Jury:

The jury for the national competition will consist of the following:

  • Architect
  • Engineer
  • Mason Contractor
  • Producer

Local competitions typically also have a similar jury makeup.