08 April 2011

Calgary Peace Bridge in trouble again

I've reported extensively on the awkward progress of Santiago Calatrava's Peace Bridge in Calgary, with my last post in October noting the bridge was delayed until this January. Then, January came and went with no news, although it's now reported that several of the bridge welds have failed an independent inspection.

The scheme initially achieved bad publicity courtesy of the City of Calgary's decision to break its own procurement rules and award Calatrava the CAN$3m design contract without any competition. Unsurprisingly, tenders came in above budget, for a scheme which was already one of the most expensive footbridges ever conceived. The key steelwork fabrication sub-contract was awarded to a Spanish firm, with Canadian suppliers judged either too expensive or lacking the requisite expertise, prompting more grumbling from the locals.

It's therefore doubly embarrassing now that welds made in Spain have failed to pass muster once shipped to Canada and subjected to independent testing. It's not entirely clear what the welding flaws are, with the contractor saying:

"There are probably some deficiencies in the welding, but it could just be different testing results and specifications in Spain. Now we need to make sure there is conformity."
Elsewhere, Calgary's representative says:
"We're not seeing an even joint between joining the two plates of metal."
In some ways, it's astounding that the welds were not properly tested before the steelwork was shipped, but in the real world it is not unusual for something like this to go wrong, even on such a prestige project. Unless it turns out that it is all a matter of misinterpreting the standards for weld testing, then someone clearly needs a major slap on the wrist. As the welds are re-tested and debated, the date for completion of the bridge slips further back, such that now nobody is even confident to say it will be completed this year.

At least the client's costs should not overrun - the risk of errors in manufacture lies with the contractor under the D&B contract. That's on the assumption that the problem is not with the original client specification, of course.

Faced with questions on who is to blame, the Calgary Herald turns, with dizzying irrelevance, to "local architects", who say that the simple matter of getting welds right is unsurprisingly difficult on such complex work. And they should know, right?

Officials and politicians seem to be queueing up to make sure the blame is placed with the contractor rather than the designer, and I have some sympathy with this. However, I've seen the welds on a Calatrava bridge - enormous, chunky, beasts of metal deposition, all laboriously hand-welded because of the highly curved and geometrically complex joints required. While the contractor ought to know what they are taking on, it also must be recognised that the designer has a part to play in coming up with a structural form which is buildable safely, economically, and which makes high quality work straightforward rather than a headache. There is, ultimately, a price to be paid for the Peace Bridge's spectacularly daft helical geometry, and this is it.

While most commenters are sanguine about what has happened, I'd recommend the inimitable Rick Bell of the Calgary Sun for the contrarian view, that it's an almighty balls-up borne of the arrogance of politicians and experts.

While the Peace Bridge saga drags ever more slowly on, it's nice to see that Calgary's other landmark footbridge, the St Patrick's Island Bridge, designed by RFR, is making steady progress, having just received unanimous approval from a city committee. I hope Calgary's desire to make it out of bits of old oil pipeline doesn't lead to trouble down the line.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, another Calatrava design is bogged down by an unaffordable price tag and a lack of funding to match. At least the reported US$8m design fee appears safe.

And just to conclude, proposals to add a second deck to Calatrava's Sundial Bridge, in California, have hit a major hurdle as well, although in this case they've been blocked neither by cost nor cock-up, but simply by being exposed as an April Fool's Day story.

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