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.
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