Since starting this blog, one of the most frequent topics I’ve covered has been that of bridge design competitions. This is largely because of the particular opportunity they provide to develop designs for bridges beyond the ordinary. Many of the entries to such contests are, to put it politely, complete rubbish, but is always interesting to see what happens when designers are forced to be unusually creative, when they have to dress to impress.
River Wear Bridge (pictured, right). At the height of their popularity (pre-recession), bridge design competitions seemed to fail to deliver with quite some regularity, leading to an entire conference on the issue (IABSE’s 2007 Henderson Colloquium), and the subsequent development by IABSE of guidelines intended to help clients run more successful competitions.
Last week I attended the UK launch seminar for these guidelines, held at the Institution of Structural Engineers in London. This was an attempt to publicise them more widely, particularly to client bodies who might consider going down this procurement route. In the event, the seminar seemed to have very little client attendance, and to be dominated instead by the usual suspects from the bridge design community. I know at least two UK client bodies who are currently planning such contests, but I suspect most are of the view that the recession has put an end to the flamboyance and frivolity with which bridge competitions unfortunately became associated. If true, that would be a shame, as it was clear from the seminar that competitions could still have much to offer.
The seminar was introduced by one of the members of the IABSE competitions working group, Angus Low. As well as explaining much of the background that I’ve described above, he offered the interesting observation that the running of bridge design competitions goes against the natural order of things.
At school, teachers are presented with a fresh cohort of students every year, and teachers become highly practiced at evaluating the efforts of their unskilled juniors. The opposite is true of bridge design competitions: the set of designers which enters them varies little over time, and thus develops considerable understanding of the evaluation process (and the tactics which best respond to it), while client bodies rarely run more than a single competition. Most clients therefore have only limited understanding of the best process to follow.
To put a rather different slant on Low’s idea, you could consider that until now, there was no guidance available to these competition client virgins, but now it is hoped that the IABSE manual will improve their prospects of securing a fertile design relationship and successfully delivering their hoped-for bridge offspring.
The main part of the seminar comprised four presentations. The first, by Brian Duguid, offered a review of previous bridge design contests in the UK, evaluating their success rate and suggesting common factors which united the more productive ones. By Duguid’s estimate, only about 60% of recent UK bridge design competitions actually resulted in a completed bridge. I think that is pretty good: I can certainly look back on periods in my own career where it seemed every design was destined for a dead end, including many where no competition was involved at all.
Poole, Glasgow, Stratford, River Douglas, Sheffield and River Soar (pictured, right). I can easily think of others. He noted more which had been successful, at least in terms of getting built: South Quay, Millennium, Gateshead, Poole (again), Stockton-on-Tees, Bootle, Stirling and Glasgow (again). Personally, I would note that not all of these were success stories for their promoters, with several costing their clients far more than was originally budgeted, the Stockton bridge being the worst offender in this regard.
The presentation listed six factors in competition success: funding and political commitment; design parameters; contest rules; consideration of cost; remuneration; and judging. I was particularly struck by Duguid’s comment that many competition promoters ask entrants for a Lamborghini, despite only having the money for a Fiat.
Footbridge 2011. Design-and-build was suggested as offering good cost certainty, although my own view is that few contractors have the appetite for risk that would allow the more innovative and exciting designs to be developed. The Foryd Harbour bridge (pictured, left) was offered as a counter-argument to this, but I wonder whether the original budget has been held to on that project, given the highly unusual design.
Duguid drew attention to the client’s attempt to calculate the financial value of “iconicity” for the River Wear Bridge, but my reading of their figures is that it was to some extent a spurious exercise, forced to guess widely in the absence of any real evidence.
no stranger to this blog. Bednarski has won ten out of the twenty bridge design competitions he has entered, a remarkably high hit rate, but only three of these have been built (Swansea’s Fabian Way, Cardiff’s Roath Basin (pictured, right), and the Inderhavnen Bridge in Copenhagen, the last of which is on site but not yet complete). These statistics are not a good advertisement for the competition as a form of procurement, but I suspect Bednarski’s choice of contests has included more than a reasonable share of what might be called “vanity competitions”, ones where a client thinks they have a good idea, but where the basic foundations of funding and political commitment referred to by Duguid as a key success factor had never been laid.
Thames Path footbridge at Lechlade (picutred, left) memorably described by its local opponents as “a yuppy tennis racket from hell”; Hadrian’s Bridge in Carlisle; a bridge in Helsinki; the Portsmouth Causeway Bridge; and the Tamar Bridge at Gunnislake. I haven’t covered any of these bridges here before but they include a number of remarkable designs.
Bednarski also highlighted the notorious Krakow bridge competition, won by a concept which had clearly never been graced by so much as the passing touch of a structural engineer. This is not the only case where the competence of a competition’s judging has been drawn into question (the Glasgow scheme already mentioned is another), and it’s depressing to see the inevitable waste of talent and time involved whenever this happens.
Kruunusillat bridge design competition only a few days previously (pictured, right). It remains to be seen whether that scheme will ever be built (with the client having questioned not only the funding but even the types of traffic it may need to carry), although Knight suggested that it formed part of a chicken-and-egg situation where a landmark bridge design was needed to attract developer interest; and only developer interest could result in the provision of funding.
This was the only presentation to really consider the “why” of bridge design competitions – why should clients procure bridges this way, and why should they do so far more often? Knight noted that in Europe, design contests are far more commonly used than in the UK. I think such contests are to some extent a damaged “brand” in Britain, with complaints over their lack of success extending well beyond the niche of bridge construction. Indeed, concern is sufficiently widespread that the day before the IABSE seminar, RIBA announced an investigation into the performance and processes of their in-house competitions office.
Knight opened by asking the audience to close their eyes and think of a bridge, and posited that the bridge they thought of would typically by historic, and possessed of a strong visual identity whether large or small. A readily recognisable view of the bridge, rather than from the bridge, was the most likely visualisation. Unbuilt bridges, and purely engineering concepts (such as calculations and analysis) were unlikely to come to mind, even for the engineers in the audience.
Gateshead and Millau (pictured, left, courtesy chericbaker) were cited as examples, while River Wear was offered as the epitome of a desire for place-making being allowed to overpower all other considerations.
The long normal life span of bridges was noted, and this long-lasting legacy was a key reason why appropriate appearance was vitally important. Knight commented that a bridge may only spend 1 or 2% of its lifetime in design and construction, but 98% being seen and used, which seemed to be a request to allow aesthetics the chance to take precedence over structural simplicity or buildability.
The view was that design competitions allow clients the opportunity to see what can really be done to support their agenda when the floodgates of creative teamwork are opened, whether that agenda is economic development, promotion of sustainability, or simply creating publicity. Here, and elsewhere in the seminar, it was noted that competitions can generate ideas that simply would not arise through a single-designer process, however able they may be.
Returning to the question of “why” design competitions, Knight felt that a positive feature of the process was simply that they brought design higher up the project agenda, allowing the benefits of good design to be better recognised.
The final presentation was an interactive walk through the IABSE guidelines themselves, by Naeem Hussain, who had chaired the IABSE competitions working group. I won’t cover this in detail, as the guidelines are after all freely available for anyone to read online. However, I will say that when I first read the guidelines, my thought was that they were too vague to offer the sort of simple process manual that many clients would like.
I now feel differently: they offer sufficient flexibility to address several different problems, and to satisfy widely varying regulatory requirements around the world. It also seems to me that their key purpose is not to tell clients what to do, but to make clients stop and think, a task which seems to be undertaken far too infrequently. Duguid’s presentation had referred repeatedly to the need to set up a competition process that aligns the incentives to designers with the client’s underlying objectives, and perhaps the guidelines might encourage the more careful thinking which could allow this to happen.
Something I would personally suggest, but which was not covered in the seminar, is that competition rules (and any complex procurement process) should be the subject of scenario-testing, where someone role-plays the bidder and seeks to “game” the system, identifying loopholes, perverse incentives and the like.
Several comments from the floor offered the view that the guidelines are not written in appropriate terminology for clients – some of the language seems to suit the perspective of the competitor. I think this is a little unfair (although it’s notable that there were no clients on the IABSE competitions working group), and certainly far less significant than the challenge of making clients aware of their mere existence. I’m aware of at least two bridge design competitions being planned by UK public sector bodies during 2013, and I wonder whether either body has even heard of the guidelines, let alone be following a process which takes on board their content.
I think the first consideration for those who would like to see better bridge design competitions is to repair the “damaged brand”, which can only happen when prominent contests are organised in a way which learns the lessons of past failure, under conditions conducive to a positive outcome. Only then is there a realistic prospect of promoting competitions as a more frequent tool in the design procurement armoury, as they certainly should be.