The big controversy in New Civil Engineer magazine, the weekly magazine for members of the Institution of Civil Engineers, has been a row over bridge design competitions run by RIBA. Although the row might seem on the face of it to be just down to a single person (Expedition Engineering's Chris Wise), this is only the latest instalment in a longer-running battle which shows no signs of nearing a conclusion. The crux of the most recent dispute is RIBA's insistence in its competition rules for a bridge over the River Douglas that entrants must not only include an architect in their team, but that the architect must be the lead designer. Although RIBA have since changed this rule, it came a little late, what with only a week or two to go until the competition deadline.
The underlying problem is that many clients looking for a new bridge see it not as an opportunity to solve a transport problem, but an opportunity to create an architectural landmark, and hence either attract funding (for regeneration), or simply publicity (as a prelude to funding). They see RIBA's competitions office as the right way to achieve this - it takes away the hassle of actually running the thing, and it offers an simple way to gain attention (some recent RIBA bridge competitions have attracted over 80 international entrants, even for comparatively minor structures with a budget under £0.5m). It doesn't just secure a design - it can secure an architect, and everybody knows you can't design a bridge without an architect these days. Wasn't it Norman Foster who designed that bridge over a river in London somewhere? So what if it wobbled - think of the publicity!
It's not clear whether RIBA genuinely believe that the presence of an architect is essential to a great bridge design (while there's little doubt they can make a tremendous contribution, they're equally clearly inessential), or are just protecting their members' commercial interests by insisting on their presence. I supect the latter, as they're joined by their Irish counterparts, the RIAI, who have included a similar requirement for the presence of an architect in two recent bridge design competitions, at River Liffey and Ballsbridge-Dodder. The latter case is particularly egregious, as not only is an architect required, but only architects can enter. To be precise, only Irish architects. To the RIAI's credit, their prizemoney is at least meaningful (50,000 euros for Ballsbridge-Dodder compared to £8,000 for the RIBA's River Douglas), and in the case of the River Liffey competition they've piled on the paperwork at prequalification stage in an attempt to narrow the field and rule out the chancers and no-hopers, thus hopefully avoiding the massive waste of expensive professional effort that RIBA deliberately encourage.
Complaints about RIBA's undesirable dominance of this field are nothing new - they were a key theme of IABSE's 2007 Henderson Colloquium, which debated how to improve the way that bridge design competitions are organised. All that the engineers have so far achieved is the ICE's and IStructE's agreement to field a token bridge engineering expert as one of the judges on RIBA's bridge competition panels. It does seem that more recent RIBA competitions have managed to avoid the fiasco of the 2005 River Wear crossing competition, where a winner was declared, but the "structurally challenging" winning design has never since been publicly revealed.
However, the fact that RIBA still needs to be publicly rebuked before dropping their insistence on the presence of architects for a bridge design competition (and that RIAI still sing exactly the same tune), suggests that they retain a thoroughgoing ignorance of what might actually help achieve a successful design, hence a successful project and ultimately a satisfied client. You would think that a greater focus on the engineer's role in ensuring buildability and maintainability would go some way to assisting in that goal. Given the number of clients complaining that they can't afford to build winning designs, or maintain them once built, it seems we're still a long way from a competition regime that can reliably deliver bridges that lead to satisfied clients. And insisting that bridge engineers play second fiddle (or as with the RIAI, can't take part at all) isn't helping matters.