The NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects introduced its first design award in 1932.  The Sulman Medal was named for the English-trained architect John Sulman who had been working in NSW since the 1880s.  Sulman was a passionate advocate of town planning and the Medal which commemorates his work was intended to be for a building of exceptional merit that contributed to the streetscape. 

For over three decades the type of building given the award cycled between five classes:

1.         Public and Monumental – Government Buildings, Town Halls, Art Galleries, Railway Stations &  Hospitals &c

2.         Educational and Ecclessiastical – Schools, Churches, Convents &c

3.         Commercial & Industrial – OfficeBuildings, Warehouses, Factories &c

4.         Recreational – Theatres, Sporting Buildings &c

5.         Domestic & Residential – Homes, &c.

In addition Australian buildings were eligible for awards given by the Royal British Institute of Architects (RIBA).  The Sulman Medal became a vehicle for the introduction of new architectural ideas, and the award to Harry Seidler for the Rose Seidler House in 1951 caused a controversy that was reported across the country.

In 1958-1960 the cycling through building types for the annual Sulman Medal was abandoned, and buildings of all classes could be entered each year.