03 September 2009

River Wear Bridge expected to get green light

Sunderland City Council are to meet on 9th September to review a report on Techniker and Spence's River Wear Bridge, and decide whether to go ahead with the project.

The bridge (shown right), which the BBC states would be the tallest in the UK at 180m tall, is a highly unusual cable-stayed bridge which not only pushes at the boundaries but sallies forth far beyond them. The lack of back-stays leads to a design where pretty much the entire deck is suspended from a mammoth tusk-like cantilever (or two).

The press report that the bridge will cost £133m, of which £23m is coming from Sunderland's residents, although I believe that's actually the cost of the entire highway scheme, not just the bridge. The figure mentioned in the original RIBA design competition for the bridge budget was £43m (roughly £4k/sq.m), so assuming the locals are paying the £23m premium solely to get the uneconomic design, its total cost might be estimated at £66m (roughly £6k/sq.m).

Using some different figures provided by the designer, the initial budget had been reduced £43m to £31m some years ago. On that basis, the new cost might be a mere £54m.

This is pure speculation, I should note: the actual cost of the bridge itself has not to my knowledge been made public.

That cost overrun (anywhere from 50% to 75% depending which numbers you believe, and even before the design is complete or construction tenders mushroom the costs further) may cause the unsuccessful competition entrants to shake their heads: how fair is it for a design to win which didn't comply with one of the competition's basic requirements i.e. the budget? This outcome is, however, far from unusual in competition-land.

I last discussed the bridge back in July, when Sunderland released new visualisations of the bridge indicating that the svelte ivory horns which won the design competition had put on some weight as design progressed.

It seems the designers have won their long battle to prove (to Sunderland at least) that their bridge is feasible, affordable, and desirable. That's undoubtedly an achievement when you consider that their design was at first kept secret for three years, and that Sunderland has been repeatedly hesitant throughout the long, painful process of public consultation and further evaluation.

To me, the bridge remains ridiculous, a colossal waste of public money on a structure which is several times more inefficient than even the most extravagantly unbalanced Calatrava creations. To the public, who have little idea of the missed opportunity for an equally iconic, yet structurally more rational solution (Sunderland Council have never made public the alternative entries), this bridge scheme is likely to be judged a success.

As a bridge engineer who most admires bridges which use the challenges of buildability and structural stability as the springboard on which to fashion something remarkable and new, I find the entire project to be a sad indictment of how we now procure landmark structures, and the extent to which engineers have made themselves subservient to architectural or sculptural fantasy.

Related posts:
Who ate all the pies?
Sunderland council decide way forward for River Wear crossing
Bridge competition debris part 12: River Wear
Sunderland gets its iconic bridge. Or does it?
Iconic vs laconic - you decide!
River Wear bridge ready for public battle
Secret bridge unveiled ... and you can see why they kept it secret!
River Wear Bridge design remains top secret


Anonymous said...

For all the wastage and the woeful lack of economy, part of me is jumping up and down at the prospect of seeing this built. It would be a true engineering feat with perhaps a comparable ratio of ostentation to utility as the cathedrals. One for future generations?

On the other hand, that magnificence only seems justifiable until you consider the water infrastructure that extra £23million could buy in (say) Bangladesh.

The Happy Pontist said...

I try to like this bridge, I really do, but the puritan in me wins out every time. Cathedrals are paragons of logical structural design in comparison.

Anonymous said...

The eccentric purity of the winning design will only continue to erode as it is developed to a buildable solution, if it even gets that far. Never meet your heroes; never try and build the winning entry?

Anonymous said...

if the budget for the bridge hasn't been made public, where exactly are you getting your numbers from?

The Happy Pontist said...

My numbers are guesstimated from the numbers that ARE public. The original bridge budget was stated in the RIBA contest as £43m, for example.

It's also been reported that the whole scheme (which includes a significant amount of highway work as well as the bridge) would now cost £133m, of which £23m is to be funded by Sunderland itself. It was reported previously that central government and other funders would cover the cost of the scheme with a conventional bridge design; the £23m would therefore seem to be an add-on cost to get the iconic rather than conventional structure.

If the original £43m budget represented the amount central government were prepared to fund, then the bridge cost out of the £133m must be £43m+£23m=£66m.

Clearly, I acknowledge in my post that this is a somewhat speculative calculation - but what else can be done if Sunderland don't make transparent figures available?