26 June 2013

Salford Meadows Bridge design competition

What amazing timing, for a new bridge design competition to follow so quickly after IABSE's design contest guidelines event!

Salford Council have announced an international bridge design competition for a footbridge over the River Irwell at Salford Meadows. It's being run on their behalf by RIBA's Competitions Office, currently the subject of a RIBA committee of inquiry, so you may imagine that how it is conducted will be watched closely in the architectural press.

The contest is in two stages, with the first open to anyone who can come up with the £50 registration fee. I'm going to bet they get over 100 entries, based on similar past exercises from RIBA, and the scarcity of similar competitions in the UK recently. The designs will be judged anonymously, with the top three each receiving £4,000. A second stage will see the shortlisted trio of designs being developed further, with anonymity removed, before a winner is decided.

Submissions are to be made digitally via the competition website, by 5th September, with the final winner to be announced in late November.

The bridge is intended to increase pedestrian access to the Meadows parkland area, and form a link in a network of walking routes connecting Salford to Manchester city centre. A total bridge length of up to 75m is anticipated, with a significant level difference between the two ends of the bridge posing the main challenge. A feasibility report made available online indicates a cost of between £1m and £1.8m, and reviews various options, such as the one illustrated here, none of which resemble a likely competition design.

It's interesting to read the competition arrangements in the light of the IABSE guidelines, and against what was discussed at last week's workshop. So much is wrong with this contest that it's difficult to know where to begin.

The first question is whether there's sufficient political will, and funding available, to ever build a bridge at this site. The competition brief makes precisely no commitment on this point, indeed there's not even a commitment to offer a design contract to the winner. However, Salford's track record of building "landmark" footbridges is good - I've visited their Trinity Footbridge, Greengate Footbridge, and Spinningfields Footbridge in the past, all of which span the same river. It's also apparent they've been planning further bridges for some time.

To their credit, Salford have done some legwork to confirm that the location for the bridge is appropriate, and that a bridge of some sort is economically feasible. However, the design parameters offered to competitors are skimpy, to say the least. The council seeks an "iconic structure" (don't they all), and notes that no supports should be placed in the river, but the published brief says nothing about required vertical clearance to the river, and acknowledges the river banks have yet to be surveyed. Is the ground suitable for suspension anchorages? Designers should just guess. The end result of all of this is the risk they may accept winning designs which are subsequently shown not to be suitable; or that they reject as unsuitable designs which are perfectly feasible.

In any design contest, the promoters need to consider how the rules and remuneration incentivise entrants, and whether the incentives align with the scheme objectives. As noted above, we can expect large numbers of entries, and to stand any chance of winning, designs need to stand out amongst competitors, to be eye-catching in a way which could impress a largely non-specialist jury (more on that in a moment). This may attract a large share of designs which are less appropriate in terms of maintenance, construction, structural economy etc.

The very low prizemoney and low odds of success means that many experienced bridge design firms simply won't bother entering, especially if they are busy with other, commercially rewarding work. Some of the better designs which could be prepared will therefore never even be submitted.

The low prize money is particularly disappointing because the organisers state that for the winner it will be considered an advance on future fee. This begs the question "what future fee?", as there is no commitment to award any design contract. Worse, it means the winner is less well off than the two runners-up: all three receive the paltry £4,000 as a prize, but the winner is then expected to do a further £4,000 of work for which they cannot charge. Prize money and design fee should always be separate, as otherwise the winner receives no reward for the hard work done in preparing their entry, or to recompense them for the significant risk they have take in allocating their time to the project.

The jury includes noted bridge architect Renato Benedetti, and only one engineer, Urban Vision's Shoaib Mohammad. Urban Vision is a joint venture between Salford Council, Galliford Try and consultant Capita Symonds. One of the recommendations of the IABSE competiton guidelines is to have an expert bridge engineer on the jury, but Mohammad is described variously as a Director for Engineering, Streetworks and Landscape Design (on the Urban Vision website) or as a Highways Director, specialising in highways maintenance (on LinkedIn). The clear concern must be that structurally challenging submissions will not be properly evaluated, leading to greater risks should the project proceed further. While an engineering review will be completed at Stage 2, that's simply too late, if good and bad proposals have been ruled in and out unfairly at Stage 1.

One of the biggest causes of competition failure is a mismatch between the promoter's budget, their aspirations, and their understanding of what the submitted designs may cost. There seems to be nothing in the rules about a proper evaluation of costs for any of the designs, and there is a real probability that large numbers of submissions will depict something well beyond the likely budget. Salford say they are looking for an "iconic" structure, but it's far from clear whether they have the appetite for an "iconic" cost.

An article in the Salford Star reveals the council have a budget of £25-30k for the competition, which gives some idea as to RIBA Competitions costs given that £12k of that is set aside for prizemoney. The Architects Journal notes that Salford have suspended their own standing orders to appoint RIBA as the competition organiser, stating that no other body could run such a contest in the UK. Salford apparently describe them as "an exclusive provider of such services" - the source for the AJ's article appears to be an internal council paper available online.

Quite what other UK architectural competition organisers like Malcolm Reading Consultants or Designed2Win make of that claim is anyone's guess. Only a minority of UK bridge design competitions in recent years have been run by RIBA, so it's a very odd claim indeed.

Despite all these issues, I expect the lack of bridge design contests will make Salford Meadows a very popular competition, and it will be very interesting to follow over the months ahead.

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