18 August 2009

How to win a bridge design competition

My last post had an interesting comment from ABC, who asked:

"The chances of winning an open competition seem very low, do you:

1) Try to win with an "extreme" or "practical" design

2) Try to be vague or detailed?

3) Develop the concept as a portfolio piece and forget about winning?

4) Forget to mention your an engineer

5) Change my name to Frank Lloyd Calatrava

I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer but here are my thoughts, with the St Patrick's Bridge competition especially in mind.

Questions to ask yourself before entering

1. What will I do if I am shortlisted? Am I happy to fly to Calgary for interview (if not local)? Am I competent / sufficiently resourced / legally qualified to enter a contract for the detailed design if I win?

2. Let's say I spend two weeks on my entry, and I have a 1 in 10 chance of winning. If I enter ten competitions, I'd expect to win one. So having invested 20 weeks of my time for free, how much work should I get out of that single win to make all that investment worthwhile? And how does that change if my odds are only 1 in 100? Is there a better way to spend my time (does the attic need clearing out)?

3. My design will be on public display. Am I happy for smart-arse bloggers to critique it online?

4. Am I in this because I want to win? Because I want it on my CV (although there's probably nothing worse on a CV than a string of competition failures!)? Or because I want to stretch myself?

5. Am I properly qualified, or if not, can I get hold of someone who is (presumably a P.E. licensed to practice in Alberta)?

None of these questions should rule out an entry, but it's certainly worth thinking about before taking the plunge.

How to compete

1. If at all possible, visit the site. Understand the landscape. Talk to the locals. Look for unexpected opportunities. Get a feel for the character of the place.

2. Understand the politics. In Calgary, there will be very strong pressure for local firms to be shortlisted. Do you have a local link? There will also be greater demand for public consultation - will your design appeal to the experts or the public? They will be looking both for something that's very different to the Calatrava design, but which will impress the public more - there will be rivalry between CMLC and the City of Calgary. CMLC will want to prove that their competitive procurement route gets a better result.

3. Understand the evaluation criteria (and whether they're real, or whether the promoter will fudge them to get what they really want, which is normal). Calgary has no clear criteria - it's not clear if a cheaper solution will score extra points; there's little reference to the promoter's aspirations, which as written amount to little more than providing "a link". Do they want something iconic? A landmark? Elegant? Low maintenance costs? They don't say any of these things. But I'm sure they want them all. How important is your experience, or brand name? They ask for that information, but don't say how they'll use it in the evaluation. So Calgary leaves you guessing: personally, I think experience will count, and because entries aren't being judged anonymously (as would be normal for an open competition), there is little likelihood the judging will be fair - if they know your reputation, they're bound to take it into account.

4. An average implementation of a unique solution may be better than an excellent implementation of a common solution. "Common" doesn't just mean beam-and-girder, it just means any solution that many entrants are going to think of - if there are twenty self-anchored suspension bridges with a single mast on the island, what's the chance that yours is the best version?

5. Is it really a bridge that they want? Or is a sculpture (most Calatravas)? A piece of the landscape? Or just a means of getting from A to B (in which case - why not a ferry? Or a cable car?) In Calgary, I'd say they want the crossing; they also want the sculpture; and they have CAN$25m that they have to spend or they will lose it. Can you give them value by using some of the money for other facilities that they couldn't otherwise afford - additional paths; a viewpoint facility on the island etc?

6. Has the brief imposed unnecessary restrictions? Does it really matter if the bridge deck drains into the river? Why can't the deck be timber? Why not two bridges (for CAN$25m, they could have several bridges at this site quite easily)?

7. Who are the judges and what will they want? Do they have any pet hates or likes? Normally the key question, but CMLC don't tell us who they'll be, so insiders may have an advantage. But I'd assume CMLC head honcho Chris Ollenberger (a qualified geotechnical engineer) will call the shots; there will be engineering advisers, possibly from Stantec, who have a vested interest (why would they want a bridge which will overshadow their own Peace Bridge project?); almost certainly some form of community representative. To keep the professionals happy, the design must be at least superficially rational from an engineering perspective. But the community will want something that's visually easily comprehensible. Are they looking for modesty, or for the kind of flash and bang that shows they're getting their money's worth?

8. Assume the judges will spend a maximum of five minutes looking at your entry in the initial run-through. Possibly not even that. The presentation board is 100% key. It must be professionally presented, with high-quality digital renders, and clear and quickly comprehensible to a lay person. It must look like an architect's presentation, not an engineer's drawing. The submission must have enough detail to satisfy the rules and as little as possible beyond that, especially as if shortlisted you will need to address all the points you had no time to consider at Step One.

9. Is there scope to diss the other likely designs? I'm normally quite keen on this, it's usually possible to predict popular solutions and point out in the technical submission why they are the wrong answer. Just bear in mind that hardly anyone will read the technical submission.

10. Don't waste time on anything other than the simplest engineering calculations. The chance of winning doesn't repay the investment of time. Having said that, don't design anything you don't feel confident you could make work at a later stage, somehow. For Calgary, entrants need to finalise their concept within the next week, spend two weeks on the digital images, a couple of days to dash off the technical report and other data required, and that still leaves time to get it in the post by the deadline.

11. Design something you've never designed before. Never done a suspension bridge? Do one now. The basic equations for an unstiffened suspension bridge (or a stressed ribbon) can be written on a single line - how hard can it be?

12. Above all, have a good idea! An okay idea won't cut it in an open contest, it has to be striking, memorable, very well-presented, and able to stand out when surrounded by dozens of others, many of which will have all these qualities while being completely unbuildable or maintainable. Spend time thinking through different concepts. Spend time not thinking about them, so that the back-brain can do its job. Inspiration is unlikely to come from studying the designs of others - that just provides knowledge to use as a resource and test possibilities against. In my experience, there's a lot of hard effort put into working through concepts, developing them in different directions, but inspiration usually comes suddenly and unexpectedly.

Note this section is headed "how to compete", not "how to win". With an open competition like this, the odds are so low of winning that there's clearly no guaranteed strategy. With a smaller invited competition, there is a good chance of knowing who the other entrants are, and what they might enter, so the tactics may differ.

Some predictions for St Patrick's Bridge, Calgary

1. Calatrava will not enter.

2. There will be at least 100 entries.

3. At least two shortlisted entries will be from locals.

4. The winner will be a collaborative engineer/architect team; there's no chance of one alone winning.

5. This bridge will be built within budget; the Peace Bridge will not.

I'd be very interested in other opinions on this post!


Anonymous said...

Dear HP

Why are you so sure the Calatrava will not enter?

. He has had over 6 months to prepare a flash submission.

. The budget is big enough.

. There is no peer review.

. There is no height restrictions - he can into creative high gear.

. Late last year it was the intention of Calgary to get him to design two bridges. Public outcry has resulted in a competition with 4 weeks to assemble a crediable team and submission scrutinised by Stantec - the local partner of Calatrava for the Peace Bridge.

Calatrava is in a good position to win and justify Calgary's previous decision to appoint him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering my questions!

I think I am going to take the plunge and try to enter as a lone designer.
Since I can't possibly win, my reasons for entering are to develop new technical skills (concept, renderings, etc) and for the shear fun of it.

Again since I cannot win, the most fun would be to submit a bridge concept that would never meet the budget. If it somehow made it to the public stage, imagine how weathering steel bridges will look beside a 1/3 cable stay, 1/3 suspension, 1/3 stress ribbon bridge!

The most practical design for the site would be two single bridges. Either suspension (like the one already there) Calatrava tube (although it is a long span) cable stay or a stress ribbon. Place some nice landings at the ends, (I'm thinking a sculpture circle with paving stones) and voila, instant concept.

Thanks again for answering my questions. If I do get into the competition (pigs flying anyone)I look forward to your review!

The Happy Pontist said...

In response to the first comment, can anyone tell me any bridge design competitions Calatrava has entered in recent years? I'm not aware of any, and that includes a number of high-profile projects which you would think might be attractive to his office.

From a pure business perspective, he can make far more money from invited designs (such as the Peace Bridge), than from competitions. It's not a productive way to invest his time.

Politically, note that the entries to the St Patrick's Bridge contest are not anonymous - so can you imagine the judging panel choosing to award a second bridge to Calatrava when faced with plenty of other good designs and given the outcry over his Peace Bridge appointment? I can't see it. He would have more chance winning if the entries were judged anonymously.

I would not rule out some of the younger engineers from Calatrava's office entering, however.

I'm not sure what you mean about "no peer review" - I'm fairly sure the St Patricks Bridge entries will receive more engineering scrutiny than the Peace Bridge evidently did, notwithstanding the presence of Stantec in both cases.

Furnival said...

I agree with your comment about Calatrava: I'd be extremely surprised if they entered. Now that the office is known among the lay public and possible clients as "The (only?) Bridge Architect", they has very little incentive to take on high failure rate submissions. In fact, I haven't seen his office complete a competition for a while. The only shortlist I've seen his name on was for the Middle Rhine Bridge near Coblenz. Which was a PQ'd shortlist of 12 (much better odds that Calgary) and yet the office still didn't submit a design.

In terms of reasons to enter: for a relatively young engineer like myself, the process of completing a concept design and working effectively with an architect while under a time pressure for a real scheme can only be good experience, regardless of the outcome. Now, if I could only postpone the fee-paying workload...

Graeme said...

I think you are correct about partnering with an architect. That is absolutely essential in winning a competition. Of course, it's hard enough meeting brilliant architects but now you have to meet one that wants to waste his or her time with an engineer.

The Happy Pontist said...

I don't think it's essential. I've done very well in a contest where I had no architect involved, and placed lower down when there was an architect. And vice versa. There are several examples of engineers winning alone, a recent one in the UK being Foryd Harbour Bridge. But I do think it helps engineers to break the negative habits they may learn on more mundane work, and can result in a design of higher quality overall.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but Foryd Harbour does look like it was cobbled together for a drunken bet by the Harbour Master and a tug boat skipper from the leftovers at the marina and some old sheet piling. Salvage, rather than design.

Anonymous said...

Hey Hp are you entering the competition?

The Happy Pontist said...

Having taken a longer look at this one, the Happy Pontist is not entering.

jcgrosso said...


I don't now how much people reading your blog are going to enter in the competition.
If 20's
Imagine that in theses 20 persons 12 had design the same collective idea that had discuss are argue on your blog with HP has a moderator.

With 12 lithely deferent shape and technology, the chances of short list for this design should be much much more higher than the sum of the personal chances.

I really believe in a collective and additional thinking for the bridge like in a industrial process.

A action like that can ask a question to the public and probably also to the Jury.

15 years ago I try this strategy with 3 or 4 others friends without success but today the web had chance a lot the possibility off sharing.

I will be enthusiastic to participate by the design to a collective supported idea.

THP can be a gap for

The Happy Pontist said...

I think the scope for collaboration is indeed much easier now than in years gone by, and if several people were to work together, they could certainly produce a better design, and present it better, than one alone.

It may be difficult for them to agree on a single design solution, which is why in my own professional life there are people I am keen to collaborate with, and others I would prefer not to.

One of the disadvantages of the competition process is that it encourages a large number of poorly thought-through ideas, with too little scope for those initial ideas to be improved by peer review or peer assistance.

Anonymous said...

You still around? Hope everything is okay?

The Happy Pontist said...

Awww! I never knew people cared!

Currently on holiday (again), back soon.