I'm struggling to know where to start with what strikes me as one of the worst bridge design competitions to be organised in the UK for quite some time.
First, let's start with the facts.
Suffolk County Council are promoting a £77m scheme to build two new highway crossings of the River Orwell in Ipswich (A and B in the image below), and to refurbish the existing Prince Philip Lock Swing bridge (C in the image below). Working with the RIBA Competitions office, they are launching a design competition to select an architectural team, to work alongside the engineer already appointed, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.
The key aim of the new bridges is to ease traffic congestion, and to promote regeneration in a riverside area which currently has very restricted transport access.
Suffolk's press release invites interested parties to submit a prequalification questionnaire by 1st September. Suffolk then intend to shortlist at least 5 teams to take part in the contest itself. These teams will submit entries by 2nd December, with a winner expected to be announced in week commencing 12th December. Construction would not start until at least 2019.
The shortlisting criteria will be something of a challenge for many very able bridge designers who may be interested in this opportunity. First, and in my view most egregiously, only architects can enter (registration with the Architectural Registration Board is a requirement, or equivalents in other countries). This is quite emphatically not a contest to find the best bridge designer, or indeed the best bridge design team, it's to provide the already-appointed engineer with a partner and skills which Suffolk CC evidently feels they lack on their own. That is, the Council does not consider their engineering consultant to be capable on their own of designing a suitable bridge for the site.
The RIBA Competitions office would support this of course - their role is as much about protection and promotion of the architectural closed shop as it is about serving any client's best interests. Some years ago, RIBA had its arms twisted by the Institution of Civil Engineers and Institution of Structural Engineers to ensure that engineers had a fair opportunity to compete in bridge design competitions (previously, RIBA were insisting that any competitors in their contests had to include a registered architect). WSP|PB will, of course, have been appointed fairly to their role, but it's simply a nonsense to suggest that there are no engineers who can design a decent bridge without the assistance of an architect (there are few, perhaps, but certainly there are some).
(RIBA's history in this area is generally poor. When I examined their track record back in 2009, I reviewed seven of their bridge design competitions, only two of which resulted in bridges actually being built. One more since then has so far fared no better (Salford Meadows), so that's a 75% failure rate.)
A further obstacle to getting the best competitors is commercial. Suffolk's information memorandum explains that they are looking for architects with a turnover of at least £1m per annum and professional insurance cover of £10m, at a stroke eliminating pretty much every specialist bridge architecture firm in the UK and limiting the field to large architectural firms for whom bridges are not a core area of expertise. For anyone who had thought the RIBA wanted to promote the interests of the small practices who make up a huge proportion of its membership, this is a quite unpleasant slap in the face.
Suffolk then go on to explain that potential competitors need to demonstrate suitable case studies demonstrating capabilities in large infrastructure projects, and information on multi-disciplinary collaborative experience, including BIM level 2 compliance. There are plenty of architectural firms who can claim this, but very few with experience applying these skills to major bridge works.
Successful hoop-jumpers will be delighted to discover they qualify for a £10,000 honorarium, which is very good by RIBA standards and will cover a small part of the costs for their site visit, interview and six presentation boards. These are to include not just one, but two entirely separate designs for each of the two main bridges, which strikes me as quite excessive, like buying one cow and expecting it to provide the milk of two.
You may wonder how the five competing architects will come up with feasible, buildable, and economic bridge design concepts, given that at this stage they will not yet have consummated the intended arranged marriage with the incumbent engineering consultant. Suffolk helpfully suggest that they could invite a friendly neighbourhood structural engineer onto their team. I will be interested to see how many engineers take up this offer, as Suffolk make it repeatedly clear that WSP|PB will be carrying out all the engineering once the project progresses for real. What engineer will pour their creativity into a contest with no carrot of a possible design appointment, only to see another engineer take on their output and gain all the credit?
In the world in which this contest lives, however, engineers are not creative, and their input is not valued. The opportunity for genuine collaborative teams to come up with exciting, attractive and practical solutions may be replaced by a good old fashioned pretty picture parade. I think almost everyone involved in this kind of work on a regular basis knows that this is not how landmark bridge design works best.
Competition entries will be evaluated for quality, appropriateness, buildability etc, and this will account for 60% of each entrant's tender marks. The remaining 40% is for a lump sum fee proposal to provide the necessary architectural services. Yes, a lump sum to undertake design even though they cannot possibly know which of their concepts will be taken forward, or how much those concepts may change during further development. The winner will be the entrant with the highest combined score, raising the very real possibility (as in other similar exercises) that the design taken forward is second or third best, if the fee is low enough.
I will be blunt: I think the way this competition has been set up flies in the face of pretty much everything that is understood about how to procure good bridge design. The prequalification criteria are calculated to exclude the talented and capable, and the promoter's attitude to the value of creative engineering design is simply disgraceful.
Am I disgruntled simply because I'm excluded from a chance to show what I can offer as an engineer? Yes, my grapes are sour, this is true. I will, of course, follow progress with great interest (first, to see whether they back away from any of the currently stated prequalification criteria). For all its flaws, I'm sure interesting designs will be generated by people capable of doing a reasonable job ...
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