05 September 2016

Salford Meadows Bridge delayed

The Architect's Journal has revealed that a "funding shortfall" has prevented progress on Salford City Council's Salford Meadows footbridge.

The bridge proposal is a design by Tonkin Liu and Arup, which was the winner of a RIBA design competition, back in January 2014.

It's a sinuous steel bridge, curved in plan and supported on legs of silver Emmental (well, actually steel box girders with cylindrical perforations).

When I first mentioned this contest in June 2013, I noted that it had grown out of a feasibility study identifying a possible budget of £1m to £1.8m. I said: "The first question is whether there's sufficient political will, and funding available, to ever build a bridge at this site ... Salford say they are looking for an 'iconic' structure, but it's far from clear whether they have the appetite for an 'iconic' cost."

After the winner was declared, I commented: "There's little in the contest submission to provide confidence that what is depicted can be delivered at a reasonable level of quality, and I think there's absolutely no chance of it being done for the £2m figure that the designer states ... There must be a strong possibility it will also end up as unbuilt".

I understand that after winning the competition, Tonkin Liu were commissioned to develop the design further, but the AJ makes clear that it has not yet been submitted for planning consent, as Salford have yet to secure sufficient funding. Salford's mayor, Paul Dennett, is looking to fund the bridge from Section 106 planning contributions (essentially a tax on nearby developments), along with external infrastructure funding from central government.

The bridge proposal was always somewhat speculative - it would provide very useful access from one of Salford's main roads to the Salford Meadows area, but can only be a luxury in current economic circumstances. It was always clear that the money didn't exist to build it, and that its future was entirely dependent on economic whim.

That's something of a shame not only for Arup and Tonkin Liu, but also for the other 171 competitors who devoted significant time and energy to offering ideas for this bridge scheme.

Further reading:

Upper Orwell Crossing bridge competition criticised by architects

I recently discussed this bridge design competition at length, describing it as "one of the worst bridge design competitions to be organised in the UK for quite some time."

Now my sentiments have been echoed in the Architect's Journal, with a number of prominent architects speaking out against the manner in which the contest has been organised.

Cezary Bednarski states that "rather than promoting and facilitating collaborative effort – the only way in which outstanding bridges can be designed – it sets architects against engineers." He comments on the fact that the appointed project engineer does not work with the competing architects at competition stage.

A similar point is made by Chris Medland: "‘A pure design response to creating a crossing fundamentally requires an architect to collaborate with a structural engineer at the outset."

The best suggestion comes from Ian Ritchie, with the idea that the contest would be better run directly by the project's engineer to allow them to choose an appropriate project partner.

Well-known bridge architect, and member of RIBA's Competitions Task Group, Martin Knight, is the only interviewee to defend the competition. He argues that it's an opportunity opened to architects which would not otherwise have been available through the client's consultancy framework.

This is not a reasonable defence: there was nothing stopping the engineer from working directly with any subconsultant architect they felt would be appropriate for the scheme, or from tendering the architectural role directly, as Ritchie suggests. This would have allowed for a sensible creative partnership to work on the scheme, rather than an arranged marriage as is currently planned.

Knight's view assumes that having an architect on the job was not a 'given'. However, that's pretty fanciful in today's climate, where it seems clear to most clients that only architects can design decent bridges (a disappointing, but understandable notion). Indeed, the entire structure of the competition is the problem, as by holding engineer and architect at arm's length and allowing only the architects to demonstrate creativity in securing their appointment, it makes clear that the engineer is only there to make the bridge stand up, not to provide fundamental design direction.

The deadline for prequalification submissions has now passed, so the complaints raised in the AJ will fall on deaf ears. It will be interesting to see how many of the shortlisted architects have managed to persuade engineers to assist their teams, and what kind of bridge concepts are then submitted to the competition.

31 August 2016

Scottish Bridges: 57. Abergeldie Castle Bridge (after the flood)

This is the third of three flood-damaged bridges that I visited on the River Dee in Aberdeenshire during August 2016.

When I visited in 2012, the bridge was derelict and had been so for some time. At the time, I said:
I’d be astonished if the deck is still there in ten year’s time, so if, like me, you have a soft spot for derelict bridges, I suggest you visit it while you still can.
That opportunity is now gone, as the bridge collapsed during the Christmas 2015 floods.

A video on YouTube makes clear why the bridge collapsed: the entire southern bank of the river was extensively scoured away by the flood (compare my 2012 photos to see quite how much has gone).

Survival of the adjacent Abergeldie Castle was clearly a far greater concern than the bridge. The bridge's southern tower and anchorages were simply swept away along with the rest of the river bank - you can still see a remnant of the main suspension cable anchors in one of my photographs.

This video shows some of the river bank protection works in progress during January 2016, as well as the remnants of the bridge;

It's a huge shame that this bridge has gone - it was of an unusual type with two suspension cables on each side, one above the other. I'm not sure how many other 4-cable suspension bridges there now are in the UK, if any.

The Abergeldie Castle bridge was originally built by Blaikie Brothers on the instructions of Queen Victoria, at roughly the same time as she authorised them to improve the Crathie bridge discussed in my previous post. A contemporary article on the building of the Abergeldie bridge can be found in The Engineer, 7th August 1885 (page 103), and I reproduce here the accompanying bridge plans:

While preparing this blog post, I also found a photograph of the 'bridge' which predated the suspension bridge. This was a cableway structure, used to transport mostly goods and the occasional person. It's what would nowadays be called a "bucket bridge", and there are precious few of these still in use (possibly just two in Scotland):

It was unfortunate that the local planning authority took no enforcement action on Abergeldie Castle bridge's owner to preserve the structure over a number of years as it was gradually allowed to deteriorate, but nothing could have saved it from the 2015 storm.

Anyway, here are some pictures of what remains of the Abergeldie Castle bridge. The bridge pylon from the south bank was swept downstream but remained attached to the north pier, so that almost all of the bridge's wreckage now rests on the north bank.


29 August 2016

Scottish Bridges: 56. Crathie Suspension Bridge (after the flood)

This is the second of three damaged bridges that I visited on the River Dee in Scotland during August 2016.

Built in 1834 and modified in the 1880s, this is a remarkable and highly unusual bridge, with a bizarre set of hybrid structural supports both above and below the bridge deck. When I visited in 2012, it was in great condition.

Following the Christmas 2015 floods, the bridge has been declared unsafe and closed to users.

It doesn't appear that the bridge has suffered much damage. There is no change to the tie-back rods from what I saw in 2012.

One of the deck edge rods is loose, but this is not new.

The only significant damage I observed was where one of the deck edge rods is broken. This should be straightforward to repair.

I'd hope this bridge can be repaired and reopened without too much further delay, but as with the bridge at Cambus O'May, it doesn't provide any vital access, so it won't be a priority for the local authority.

27 August 2016

Scottish Bridges: 55. Cambus O'May Bridge (after the flood)

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the River Dee in Aberdeenshire, and returned to three bridges which I had previously seen in the Summer of 2012.

At Christmas 2015, the Dee experienced one of the most severe floods in its history, along with several other rivers in Britain. A number of bridges along the river were severely damaged, and one destroyed.

Cambus O'May Bridge was built in 1905 by James Abernethy & Co., and then substantially rebuilt in 1988. It's a very fine pedestrian suspension bridge, one of many along the River Dee. It looked good on my 2012 visit.

It's amazing that the bridge survived the 2015 flood at all, as the level of water battering the bridge can be seen in the video below:

When I visited in mid-August 2016, the damage to the bridge is clear. Unsurprisingly, it is currently closed, with no sign of any plans for repair work.

The entire structure has been bent sideways by the force of the water.

Several of the bridge hangers are missing or bent.

Most significantly, there is major damage to one bay of the main deck lattice truss, presumably due to impact from debris.

I think the most likely future for this bridge is another reconstruction, as I think it would be inordinately different to cut out and replace the most damaged section and to straighten the remainder of the bridge. That seems unlikely to happen any time soon, as the bridge does not provide critical access to anyone, and I imagine there are other priorities for limited budgets.

04 August 2016

Upper Orwell Crossing Project bridge design competition

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 ...

17 July 2016

Bridge: The Heritage Of Connecting Places And Cultures

There's an interesting conference planned for 6th-10th July 2017, to be held at the Museum of Iron, Coalbrookdale, UK.

It's organised by the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage (based at the University of Birmingham) and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, and is intended as an interdisciplinary conference examining the heritage of bridges. The organisers state that "the conference will draw from anthropology, archaeology, art history, architecture, engineering, ethnology, heritage studies, history, geography, landscape studies, literature, linguistics, museum studies, sociology, tourism studies etc."

Proposed discussion themes include:

  • The materials and technologies of bridges – the heritage of form and function
  • National and local iconographies of bridges
  • Narratives of bridge construction and destruction
  • Communities united and communities divided by bridges
  • Poetics of the bridge – representing the bridge in art, literature and film
  • Love and death on the bridge
  • The language of the bridge – metaphors and meanings in social life
  • Touring bridges – travel narratives and tourism economies
  • Alternative bridge crossings – tunnels and ferries

A call for papers has been announced, with a deadline of 1st November 2016 for abstract submission. There are no details on conference prices at present., but you can visit the conference website to keep up to date with plans.