13 February 2012

Bridge design competitions in the USA

I've been contacted by a civil engineering student at MIT who is writing their Masters thesis on the subject of bridge design competitions in the US - why are there so few? Should there be more? Can they learn lessons from elsewhere?

Rather than simply offer my own (largely ignorant) views, I've agreed it may be better to open the topic up to you, the readers of this blog. You can respond either through the blog comments, or if you prefer, by email directly to cee.student.2012@gmail.com.

Some of the questions raised include:

  • What are some known and/or interesting U.S. bridge design competitions (ideally ones that have been built or are being built) - are there any examples?
  • Is information on the design and the competition process available?
  • An understanding/synopsis of the design competition process (both in the U.S. and abroad)
  • How do the competitions work? Time frame, participants, judges/jury, budget, financing, awards, etc. Are these competitions widely publicized?
  • A feeling for the the design competition culture (both in the U.S. and abroad) as well as opinions of the process - are competitions helpful for the field? Do they incite conversations and innovation?
I am sure any responses would be very greatly appreciated.

For my part, one thing I note about US bridge design culture relative to that in Europe is the much greater obsession with community participation, often to the detriment of what many engineers would consider good design (e.g. the adding of irrelevant ornamentation, even to the extent of adding fake arches, so as pacify the voters). I've never understood this inability of designers and bridge promoters to make their own decisions, but it does seem to be at odds with the culture of design contests, which is generally heavily authorial - in search of a designer with a strong vision.


Anonymous said...

Maryland conducted two highly successful bridge design competitions in the past. One was for the U.S. Naval Academy Bridge over the Severn River in Annapolis MD in 1989 and one was for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on I-95 over the Potomac River, south of Washington DC. Both competitions awarded the final design contract to the winning entrant and both bridges were ultimately built using the winning design, with some modifications. Design competitions can be long, grueling and expensive, but they do go a long way towards sparking creativity and building consensus among stakeholders.

Anonymous said...

I think that bridge competitions are typically of two kinds.

1) Open to anyone that can draw or submit a PDF.

These kinds of competitions are rare. Even rarer (is that word) is for an unknown to win such a contest without a big engineering firm to back them up.

I would love to see more of these. Sort of an American Idol process where designers can be discovered.

2) A competition with contestants from huge firms that provide no chance for the independent to win. These types of "competitions" are commonplace in the US. To me these are not competitions, just a method of protecting the owner.

Look at the Woodrow Wilson final entrants and you see the 2nd kind of competition.

"A unique Bridge Design Competition was completed in November 1998. Its purpose was to bring forth the finest possible design. Four firms, which submitted a total of seven concepts, were finalists in the competition. A jury comprised of individuals from a variety of disciplines, and chaired by former Maryland Governor Harry Hughes, selected a winning concept which was announced on November 18, 1998 during a press conference.

The winning design is a graceful, seamless concept by Steinman and Deleuw. The box-girder bridge is characterized by V-shaped piers that offer the look of arches but enable a more open appearance with smaller foundations than would a true arched design.

The fours team that competed were:

Steinman and DeLeuw (Both part of Parson Corp)
Figg Engineering Group/Johnson &Mirmiran &Thompson Team
HNTB Corp.
T.Y. Lin Internation"

Hardly what I would call an "open" competition.

Anonymous said...

When you consider that the "prize" for winning the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Design Competition was a contract to actually design the bridge (a prize that eventually was worth well over $40 million), can you blame the owners for wanting to be sure that a reputable, experienced and established team was behind the entries. Seven teams submitted qualifications for the competition; these were narrowed to the four finalists mentioned. Since each team consisted of many firms with many varied areas of expertise, most would say that the competition was quite "open." Furthermore, the WWB project contained the largest movable bridge in the country, so having movable bridge experience was critical. Since there are only a relatively small number of firms with such experience, it did tend to limit the field. By any measure, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Design Competition has to be considered a roaring success.

Anonymous said...

Yes but was it a bridge competition?

Maybe an individual designer could have submitted an idea and if it was selected, the designer could be partnered with a high powered engineering firm to complete the job?

This may be a bit naive on my part but seven multinational firms is really not a bridge competition. It was essentially a letting for a project. I would like to see bridge competitions where an unknown can win.

WWB is a bit of an exception to bridge competitions but still who was the concept designer of record?

I know Rosales takes some credit for the project.....

PBS building big.

"I'm also working on a bridge in Washington, D.C., crossing the Potomac River. It's called the Woodrow Wilson Bridge -- that's another quite important bridge in the U.S. I'm also working on several smaller bridges."

Anonymous said...

Frequently, as documented countless times in this blog, when competitions are open to individuals without regard for technical ability or credentials, the design competition devolves into a "pretty picture" competition. No responsible owner wants to deal with that, nor would a reputable engineering company want to take on such a non-technical "design" (i.e., the pretty picture) submitted from the general public.

Let's agree to disagree about your definition of a bridge competition, but it is naive to think that an owner would turn the design of a $650 million bridge over to an "unknown".

The designer of record for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is Parsons. However, there were many firms on their team that played a role in developing the winning concept, including Rosales. "Success has a thousand fathers..." is a relevant quotation.

The Happy Pontist said...

There are lots of great bridges that have resulted from open competitions - London's Millennium Bridge would be an obvious example. In any open contest, there are usually a few gems amongst the dross. But by their nature such contests discourage the more experienced entrants, and so the invited competition is probably preferable for any major structure. I have seen invitation-only contests which have not gone for track-record as the main criterion, but have gone for flair or innovation: the Carpenter's Lock contest for the London Olympic park is one such example. The scale of the structure to be delivered is key.