17 February 2015

Bath Quays Bridge Design Competition

Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES) have announced a competition to design a new £2.5m pedestrian bridge over the River Avon in Bath.

The bridge will span approximately 60m and is to be approximately 5m wide. It is intended to help spur regeneration of a new riverside quarter in the city, and the intention is for a contract for bridge construction to be awarded in 2016.

I was particularly interested to see that BANES's competition brief claims to be "strongly guided by" IABSE's Guidelines for Design Competitions for Bridges, which I have discussed here before. It seems a pretty dubious claim in some respects.

The Bath Quays contest is currently requesting prequalification submissions, which will be used to shortlist 5 or 6 entrants for the main competition stage.

The prequal criteria include a number of standard local government requirements on equal opportunities, health and safety, management systems etc, intended to weed out those firms who might struggle to deliver the project, but with the possible effect of also ruling out a number of smaller firms who might be able to deliver interesting and creative proposals.

The main prequal criteria consider previous experience, both in terms of individual CVs and previous projects. Again, this may have the effect of discouraging new entrants to the bridge competition arena, but that depends on how the applications are evaluated. Interestingly, BANES proposes to identify a longlist of potential competitors, and leave the final shortlisting to their jury panel, which I think is a very positive move. It's a good jury panel as well, with a couple of highly competent engineers on board.

There are two main areas where the competition seems to me to be inequitable. The first is in the reward. Teams who prequalify have eight weeks in which to prepare their designs, which is a generously long time for such a little bridge, and receive in return only a £5,000 honorarium, which is frankly derisory. Assuming a typical architect / engineer partnership, that's only £2.5k each, which is no reward at all for the work which will be undertaken and from which BANES will benefit. No doubt many experienced bridge designers will grizzle about it but enter all the same. There's not even a prize for the winning designer to help them recover some of their entry costs: the only reward is the promise of the main design contract, which for a £2.5m bridge will be at a level where the profit margin will struggle to offset the time and money expended in getting that far.

And make no mistake, BANES are expecting quite a lot of effort: 3d visualisations, both architectural and engineering drawings, a construction methodology, a project programme, and a construction cost estimate "based on a preliminary bill of quantities and unit rates to be provided by the competition entrant". In total, that's easily £25k worth of work from each entrant, largely unrewarded, and it's hard to see that the construction cost estimates will be of any quality.

The evaluation method for the main contest stage is equally odd. Entrants are to provide both their design and also a detailed commercial submission, including a lump sum design fee, design programme, schedule of fee rates, activity schedule and partially completed contract. The quality and commercial submissions will be evaluated, weighted, and combined to give a final score, raising the possibility that the poorest design could still win if the accompanying commercial offer is sufficiently cheap!

No designer will be able to make a sensible judgement of their final fee based solely on concept stage design development, and this aspect of the contest goes quite squarely against the IABSE guidelines, which suggest that if a fee proposal must be provided at competition stage, it should be in a sealed envelope, opened only after the winning design is chosen. I imagine BANES are concerned not to have to negotiate an acceptable fee with the winning designer after they have won the contest and hence achieved a strong bargaining position. But I struggle to see that this aspect of the competition evaluation will provide a positive influence on the selection and subsequent development of a high quality bridge for Bath.

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