06 July 2009

RIBA bridge design competitions - any better?

Last August, I asked the question: do RIBA bridge design competitions work? At the time, my conclusion was that they offered a mixed bag: out of six competitions I considered, two ended going nowhere; one appeared to be going well; and three were impossible to tell. None of them had actually resulted in a bridge being built, which you might have thought was the aim of the promoters in each case.

One reason for asking the question was that at the time, RIBA-run bridge competitions were proving controversial in the engineering press. This was largely because of RIBA's insistence that entrants to their competitions must include an architect on the team, a ridiculous requirement in the bridge design field (to be clear: architects can help design great bridges; they're just not essential). However, behind the scenes, there was greater discontent, with a number of prominent designers concerned that RIBA (and other) design competitions were producing designs that were structurally bonkers, and expensive to both build and maintain.

Since then, RIBA has agreed with the ICE and IStructE to allow engineers to enter such competitions without an architect (the recent architects-only ideas contest for an inhabited London Bridge notwithstanding), and to include knowledgeable bridge engineers on all bridge design competition juries. So, the question is, have things improved?

I'll cover the same six schemes as last time, to see how they've moved on, plus the one other RIBA bridge competition held since then.

River Wear Crossing

An invitation-only competition was held in 2005, with the winner announced in September of that year as Techniker and Spence Associates (pictured right). Last August, there were moves to secure government funding, but the bridge design itself hadn't been made public. Things moved on rapidly, though. Wraps were taken off the design in September, it was subject to public consultation, and then confirmed as the preferred option, subject to further feasibility study and cost review. Sunderland Council has never made public the losing entries, but I showed two of them here in March.

Since the end of 2008, things have gone quiet, although I understand preparatory work on the Sunderland Strategic Transport Corridor, the grandly named road scheme that the bridge forms part of, is continuing. However, as it stands, Sunderland Council's support for the Techniker design is subject to further assessment of its affordability, and central government have not yet given unconditional agreement to fund the scheme. My own view is that the present cost estimates for the iconic bridge are too low (given its profoundly unusual structural behaviour) and that it will never be built.

Is that the fault of the RIBA competition process?

I think so. The design was chosen on aesthetic merit before it was subject to a technical review by engineers with appropriate expertise, and has been allowed to gather public support before any serious attempt to review its cost or feasibility has been completed. The risks inherent in the design should have been challenged robustly before a winner was chosen.

River Avon Footbridge

No change here: the competition winner (pictured left) was announced in January 2007, and the scheme cancelled in July 2008 due to rising costs. It won't be resurrected. I've covered the losing entries for this one as well.

I don't think the competition process is especially to blame - the winning design (by Schlaich Bergermann and Ian Ritchie) is attractive and the engineering risks should have been low. Lack of strong local commitment to the scheme seems to have been the main problem, although I have to say the increased scheme costs are a puzzle - they don't seem to be merited by such a simple bridge.

Leeds-Liverpool Canal Footbridge

This one was looking good last time around. The competition for a bridge in Bootle was won in February 2007 by Eckersley O'Callaghan and Softroom (pictured right), who went on to secure planning permission by May 2008, despite a near doubling of the project budget. An August 2008 start date was reported, but as far as I can find out, construction has still not started. Competition entries here.

The cost rise here seems largely attributable to the low initial budget of £400k, which is very low for a landmark structure, however short the span. It's not clear at all why this scheme has stopped. I think the competition organisers must take some of the blame - if funding is the issue, as seems most likely, they should be telling promoters upfront when their budgets and aspirations don't match. There's also a need to discourage competitions from being run when funding isn't secure, as the cost to unsuccessful competitors is an unfair burden - people compete in the expectation that the winning bridge will be built. Where that's not the case, prize money should be greater to reflect the greater fee risk.

New Islington Footbridge

Last year, it was too early to tell if this Manchester footbridge would go ahead. A winner, by Michael Hadi Associates and Gollifer Langston (pictured left) had been announced in July 2007. Since then, it became apparent that funding was no longer available to build the winning design (if it ever was). The local regeneration company has had staff budgets slashed, which means they will have little money for the bridge. However, the very latest news is that the design has been submitted for planning consent, and that efforts to secure funding are still ongoing.

As for RIBA's role, I think it's the same as at Bootle - the competition simply shouldn't have gone ahead if there was a high risk that entrants would go unrewarded. Competition entries here.

Sheffield Parkway Footbridge

In January 2008, Norlund Architects and Ramboll Whitbybird won this footbridge contest. Since then, there's been complete silence, although on the Norlund Architects website it says the bridge is due to be built in 2010. I don't really believe that, but let's be kind, give it the benefit of the doubt, and assume this bridge is still undergoing design development. Competition entries here.

River Douglas Footbridge

The proposal to span the River Douglas, near Preston, was always on the optimistic side. It was clear even at the time of the competition that there was no funding in place to actually build the bridge, and that the organisers intended to use the winning design (by Arup and JDA Architects, pictured left) to try and drum up some cash. Quite how many entrants actually realised that is a different matter, as the contest had a ridiculous 110 submissions.

So far as I can tell, the project has yet to secure funding, and once again designers have been very poorly rewarded for a scheme which seems to be going nowhere. I've previously discussed both the shortlisted designs, and shown some of the other unsuccessful entries.

River Soar Footbridge

Here's a case where it really is too soon to judge - the winner (Buro Happold with Explorations Architecture, pictured right) was only announced at the end of February. Other entries here. I don't know whether design is progressing yet, and it would be rather unfair to speculate how well it will go just yet. Compared to other recent RIBA competitions, this one seems to have been run well, with only six firms invited to submit entries, and each of them paid £6,000, which will cover a reasonable proportion of their costs.

So, what are the scores on the doors? I make it: one bridge cancelled for definite (Stratford); three stranded without funds (Bootle, New Islington, River Douglas); one still trying to prove its feasibility (River Wear); and two don't knows / too early to tell (Sheffield, River Soar).

Looked at another way, only three out of the seven have made it as far as planning consent stage (Bootle, New Islington, Stratford). None have made it as far as putting a spade in the ground. By those measures, the RIBA design competition seems a pretty good way to get lots of publicity, but not a great way to actually get a bridge built. To be fair to RIBA, past competitions prior to these seven have not always been so unlucky - they have led to bridges being built (e.g. the Infinity Bridge, although in that case only at a cost three times what was allowed for in the competition). It's also important to understand that the process of getting any bridge built can be subject to lengthy hiatuses and false starts, so some of these bridges may yet get there in the end.

The cost to the bridge design sector of these seven competitions is substantial, and certainly well in excess of £1m. The customers don't seem to worry about that: if you could get dozens of concept designs and still pay peanuts, why wouldn't you? However, the cost to the taxpayer will also be considerable, particularly on schemes like River Wear and Stratford where substantial investment has been made in the designs.

The real question is whether there's a better way to procure a landmark bridge design. Bridges at Stirling, Brisbane and Glasgow have recently been built through the Design-and-Build route, with no evident loss of design quality, and although a risky design was chosen, the Rhyl opening footbridge may well prove to be similarly successful. Other fine bridges have resulted from the promoter going it alone and organising their own competition.

Keys to success? A clear political will, with public support. Funding in place. Inviting a small number of designers and rewarding them sufficiently to spend time optioneering rather than just being obliged to draw up their first idea in order to meet the contest's deadline. Giving engineers a strong role (design-and-build normally forces this to happen, because no sensible contractor will put forward a design they aren't confident they can build for a known sum of money).

There's no reason why all of these can't be in place for a RIBA competition, but the evidence suggests that when any one of them isn't there, the scheme will fail.

Update 15 July 2009: I'm told by Prospect Leicestershire that the next stage of design of River Soar Footbridge is about to start, progressing towards a planning application.


Anonymous said...

Great post.

I guess my question is, what is the incentive for someone submitting a design, to care about the actual budget?

If I was submitting the design my goal would be to win and if that takes a bridge concept that is twenty times the budget, so what if it never gets built? I still get the publicity.

If your an architect it might just mean another portfolio piece or the start of a new business. (I am thinking of the Sheffield Parkway bridge and how it started Norlund Architects)

If you the one who has to actually design it and keep it within the budget you might have a stronger incentive to provide a buildable design. (Which does not mean a "plain" design)

I think your keys to success says it all: "A clear political will, with public support. Funding in place. "


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the Sheffield Parkway competition scheme is dead as a dodo due to cost escalation and Yorkshire Forward has recently awarded a commission to a new team, on the basis of lowest fee (and not design), to devise a much cheaper scheme up to planning. Let's hope the pendulum doesn't simply swing from one extreme to another, with an over-ambitious competition-winning showpony replaced with a cut price and cheap substitute.

Anonymous said...

In response your comment in the post which, I suspect is meant to be provocative (for architects) I would also add that an architect is essential, proving they are an excellent bridge designer

Within our office we have come close several times to bringing pure engineering skills into our team, as other engineers have brought architects into their ' bridge team'.

We decided not to do this as no one engineer or their approach, or personality (ego) is suitable for every job. From a business point of view you also limit your connections and possibly future collaborations as we would not use an engineer with in house architecture.

I have come across my fair share of engineers who would be more hinderance than benefit to even the most basic structure. Often designing solutions to make life easier for them selves rather than embracing advancing material technology or new fabrication techniques, it is a wonder that even the most basic cantilevered stair gets designed.

As someone who has been working in the bridge world for the last 15 years I feel we should move away from engineer or architect on this forum and simply become ' bridge designers'.

Maybe we should push for a new degree? and joint RIBA / ICE qualification.

The Happy Pontist said...

Provocative, moi? Surely not!

When suggesting that an architect is not essential to the bridge design process, I'm only judging from my own experience. I've designed bridges, both good and bad, without an architect involved. The same has been true when an architect has been involved. But not one of those bridges could have been built had the architect worked alone.

You are undoubtedly completely right that there could be engineer-only teams who would design terrible bridges in competition; and architect-only teams who would design great bridges. But no bridge would get built without an engineer, while many bridges are built without an architect.

In my own projects, I am quite confident I can come up with a high quality design without an architect, but my experience is that an architect who understands bridges will always make the design significantly better, and also challenge me to step beyond my normal comfort zone. An architect who isn't sympathetic to bridges ... well, that's a different matter.

When describing my work outside the professional community (e.g. to friends and neighbours), I always simply say that "I design bridges" (of course, in reality, I also work on existing structures i.e. maintenance rather than design).

Much of the artificial divide is a product of the various institutions and their desire to protect their members' commercial interests. It has nothing to do with the client's best interest.

I'm not sure there's scope for a cross-disciplinary qualification, but I always support the view that education should expose young designers to ideas from outside their own discipline (although my experience from involvement with universities is that this is difficult - many students are ill-suited to stepping beyond disciplinary boundaries).

Anonymous said...

A very interesting blog you have.

Perhaps the argument should be that an engineer and an architect must be included in the JURY, and entrants must include at least one or the other (better together though. Looking at the Sheffield Parkway shortlist, the competence of jury can be doubted. As you mentioned, some proposals are structurally, and also esthetically, complete junk.