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Some time pressures today so just a quick post. Do you agree with these definitions?

What I get when I search the word “engineer” on google.

Engineers are concerned with developing economical and safe solutions to practical problems, by applying mathematics and scientific knowledge while considering technical constraints. The term is derived from the Latin root “ingenium,” meaning “cleverness”

And more to the point, how engineers are treated:

Searching architect:

An architect is trained and licensed in planning and designing buildings, and participates in supervising the construction of a building. Etymologically, architect derives from the Latin architectus, itself derived from the Greek arkhitekton (arkhi-, chief + tekton, builder), i.e. chief builder.

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Bridge Aesthetics in a Recession?

Right now I have about $10 million dollars worth of bridge designs on my desk and none of the bridges have any additional aesthetics. Just your typical utilitarian concrete highway bridges.

When I propose adding a little visual excitement (when the location demands it) I always here the lament, we don’t have the money right now. So my question is, are bridge aesthetics only allowed in the “good” times?

The New York Times thinks so, “Recession is Ravaging Architectural Firms“. Money quote:

“It will never be the same again,” said Michael A. McCarthy, a partner in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the largest firms in New York and the nation. “Beginning work in this city in 1964, I’ve had the chance to see a lot of ups and downs. This one, to me, is without a doubt the worst.”

So is it a good time to promote bridges like the two new Calgary pedestrian bridges? Should bridge aesthetics be pursued in good times and bad?

Here is how one architect started drumming up business, by taking it to the streets. I actually wish engineers would speak to the public directly more often.  Maybe we need a booth in Washington?

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Reusing old bridges as Parks?

In an article on BLDGBLOG, a discussion about turning old bridges into parks, cultural centers and housing. Starting with the recently remodeled Bay bridge in California.

This has been discussed and discounted on other blogs but the idea seems to have some momentum.

Bay Area architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello have called for stabilizing the disused – and soon to be entirely dismantled – portion of the Bay Bridge. They would then turn it into a pedestrianized urban park and outdoor sports attraction.

Energy collection on freeways..

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Show me the Budget!

In the past I was determined to design my bridges as safe, usable, appropriate, low cost structures. I felt that was my goal as the engineer of record. My feelings have shifted in this regard…still safe, usable but I am open to spending more money for a better design.

Partially because I believe that a low cost structure is not always the “right” structure for a location (if it is, use a low cost structure) and partially, and this seems bad, I see so much money wasted on other projects.

Typically a bridge type is chosen for a location and then the budget is determined by calculating what that bridge will cost.

How many times have you said to the person with the purse strings that you could improve the design and possibly lower the cost with some minor changes?  Do you get to make the changes?

Probably not because that may mean a non-standard design. I have seen “standard” bridges built with five piers in a river where a change to a non-standard design would reduce the piers in the water with the added benefit of looking significantly better than the multi-span standard bridge

But you say, the standard bridge will be cheaper. The initial material cost may be cheaper but placing five piers in the river will involve multiple cofferdams and when you factor in the cost of building them you often find the larger span bridge with two piers will be cheaper.

In defense of the “right” structure for a location I ask engineers to look at their own neighborhoods. Would you want a number of square houses (easiest to design and build) next to your house? Simple boxes that all look the same? NIMBA!

I know this may be a poor analogy but anyone who has owned a house next to someone who never mows their lawn or paints their house understands my example.

Typically on a project that has/wants aesthetics in the design a percentage of the total cost will be set aside for the “added” features after a bridge type is chosen. Say a standard bridge will cost $1 million dollars, an additional 10% ($100,000 dollars) will be added to the final cost for the inclusion of decorations/improvements to the standard design.

What I think would be an better way to design a bridge, before picking a bridge type,  is to first determine the budget. If you want a $10 million dollar bridge, I will show you what we have available for that price.

What I hate is picking the bridge type first and then determining the budget. This continues the practice of standard bridges and reduces everything to the lowest cost.

This post sort of got away from me but to sum up…..

If designers knew the budget up front, before choosing a bridge type, I believe engineers would be more willing to design non-standard structures because they will examine what can be built for the allotted money.

Instead of reaching for the low cost option first, we could look at what could be built for the money, which I believe would allow us to build more appropriate and interesting structures.

Updated: I don’t think this post makes sense? Oh well I have been working on artistic, sculpture bridges. So far this is all I have…


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Sunday practice

Still working on making concepts looks interesting. If anyone can recommend websites that give tutorials on making architectural concept renderings, I would appreciate some help!


What I would like to learn is graphics like those shown in my signature bridge review.

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Four Mile Run Bridge Competition – Virginia


My math on the cost of the bridge per sq foot was wrong. Sigh, I need more coffee in the morning but I still think $10 million is about right for a single span of four hundred feet? Do you think this is in the ballpark? I think a budget estimate gives a good idea of the “type” of bridge they want for the location. (Thanks for the math help!)


HP (thanks) pointed me to a new bridge competition in Virgina, the Four Mile Bridge Competition.

The competition deadline is Monday, December 7, 2009 and the format is a little different than the recent Calgary competition.It looks to have a single span of about 375 feet. The overhead electrical lines will have to be moved for a tall structure.


I could not find the budget for the bridge on the website, so  please email me the information if you know it. (I figure about $10 million? )

The project description sets the goal.

Taking inspiration from its surrounding natural and industrial elements, the bridge is to be a modern, sustainable, and sculptural piece, spanning clear across the run with minimal impact to the streambed.

(Sculptural bridges are expensive.)

The submittal process is similar to current DOT practices of obtaining qualifications of the design firm before picking a design. (They do not want a surprise “amateur” to win.)

The competition to design and build this bridge begins with a request for qualifications and culminates in a public presentation given by three finalists. A winning team will be chosen based on the strength of their professional skills and the potential for their conceptual design to become an icon for the Four Mile Run and its surrounding community.

I think I will try to put together a concept or two for fun, since I don’t qualify as a “team” of design professionals. I believe I meet the engineering requirements (I could get licenced in Virginia through comity, long span, etc).

I would be interested in joining a team if any design professionals out there are interested. Any thoughts on this competition and the way it has been set up?

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Disco Crossbow bridge

Update: Just a really quick render of a different light pattern. I like the night bird thing…

rednightbird copy



Still working/playing on my Crossbow bridge. I thought it would be interesting to make some kind of open “roof” system within the cables, that could reflect light around the bridge, something sculptural (metal?). The roof system may also feature some holes that light can beam through.

Obviously it is just for fun and skill building. I like this design much more than my entry into the Calgary bridge competition. I think it looks bird-like and the sharp nose gives a “standing on the bow of the Titanic” ship feeling for one viewer.

Just as obviously it is not a fully developed idea…..


My first attempt at a night view. I’m just learning the software and the considerable time it takes to get a “finished” render. (Placing lights is a pain.)

The good thing about Sketchup is even bad ideas look professional and the bad thing is it takes so much time to redo something, that you eventually just stick with what you have….the deck actually would make a great summer night disco dance floor!


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Bridges and Money

My last post generated a little conversation about the role of style in bridge design. But the real question probably boils down to money and context.

Lets look at the costs of the new (2nd) Calgary pedestrian bridge for an example of what I mean. The budget is $25 million Canadian dollars ( I grew up in Calgary when the Can dollar was higher than the US dollar) that works out to approximately:

  • $23.7 million US dollars
  • $14.7 Million British pounds

The bridge length is approximately 180 meters (straight) and a minimum of 5 meters wide. So the basic cost is (approximately)

  • Can $27,800 dollars/sq.m
  • US $2446 dollars/sq. ft  (Feet, sigh)
  • $16,300 GBP / sq. m

I could probably build a standard concrete bridge for about 1/4 that cost. So assume that 50% of the cost is purely for aesthetics. Is that too much? I would guess my class full of budding engineers would say yes, I would also bet that architects look at that pot of money as an opportunity for greatness.

Where do I fall on this scale? Well I have to say I have gone to the dark side of engineering..I actually think that the budget is perfect for the new structure.

Initial cost is one thing but beauty, usability, enjoyment of the area is a very worthwhile pursuit. The only problem I really have with the Calgary competition is one of context.

When I looked at my design for the competition I worried too much about making the bridge usable and protecting the structure from floods. Two very basic engineering ideas. I think my structure would have have been perfectly safe for pedestrians but beyond that not much of an experience.

So what is the context of the Calgary bridge? Is it to be an intimate structure for a small neighborhood or a city monument? Is the bridge geared towards the experience of the pedestrian/cyclist or the jet-setter flying overhead? Can it do both? What engineering concerns will come into play (tradeoffs – efficiency vs design)?

I also think it is important that engineers lead the discussions in public meetings about their designs and explain the constraints placed upon their work.

HP hits it on the head when he says

I think that for engineers to regain a central role in design of “aesthetic” bridges, they need to think harder about all the issues that they normally ignore – this can include style, as well as social context, politics etc.

Engineers may not be wired to make this leap, but I think it is something we need to do to survive in the bridge world.

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I am a little stuck for ideas today. I have a number of projects to finish, I have to develop a talk for San Antonio and I want to concept more pedestrians bridges!

To jump start my brain and find something to write about I went and looked at the first few pages of the Happy Pontist blog. He (I think!) wrote this in one of his comment replies..

Although many of his designs are inefficient and irrational, what I do like about Calatrava is that he has a very clear style, which many imitate but few can match. And I think good engineers should have style, but too rarely do.

That had me thinking about engineering “style” and to be honest I cannot name another engineer that has a bridge style. By that I mean a living, breathing, working engineer who actually develops bridges with a recognizable style.

ARUP (a large, good engineering firm) is heavily represented in the Calgary bridge competition, but who is the actual engineer for the submitted projects?

Are there interchangeable engineers who can be plugged in when needed or is there a small super-group of engineers sent to the pedestrian bridge hot spots around the world? (Genetically modified engineers in ironman suits!)


At one time I used to put something “extra” in my bridge plans for fun, an extra steel bar (the stu bar) or  in one case, I threw my design pencil into the pier concrete when it was being poured. (Not that this comes close to “style” just some minor engineering rebellion)

Style is difficult to come by for an engineer because we are typically designing someone else’s concept. (I doubt an architect would like my “style’ incorporated into their project.) In my “Top Ten Bridge Engineers” post, my top five engineers are not around anymore.

So who are the new hotshot bridge (engineering) designers and can you recognise their style?

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Bridge News

The I-5 bridge concept in Oregon is looking at a tighter budget.

This comes after years of $1 million-a-month planning but no real commitments from state or federal governments to actually pay for construction.

Another opinion has some harsh words about the planning of this bridge.

From April 2004 through June 2009, $68,170,000 has been spent on Portland’s bridge to nowhere, also known as the Columbia River Crossing.  During this time, which has been characterized as the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, consultants have been feeding at the public trough.

Some comment on the CMLC site about the bridge I like:

  • Very nice. Clean, crisp, curvy, though somewhat ‘conservative’. Perhaps not the most exciting submission, but it would be a good choice.
  • Nice looking bridge but too typical. Nothing different or unique about it.
  • Boring.
  • Looks like a christmas postcard although somewhat elegant (yawns). Nothing compares to rogers! Everything else has been done and is not taking us a step closer to anything new. Richard Rogers all the way.

(The last comment relates to the bridge that I chose to win.)

The Happy Pontist looked at this bridge with solar panels for the LED system. ($63 million aussie dollars for the bridge – $54.9 US dollars!)

75 per cent of the power required to run the LED lighting in the fully lit mode is generated by solar energy

crossbowredOne more image of the crossbow bridge with color!. (click for large view)

As my daughter would say, that bridge is gynormous!

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Crossbow Bridge

I rendered (quick) another concept from my sketchbook for the Calgary bridge competition. Its a bridge across the Bow River, Crossbow bridge, get it….ya I know.

But, I want to keep working on the skills I started to develop for the Calgary bridge competition. So Sketchup skills, modeling skills and trying to learn Photoshop skills.


I like the large platform, access to the island and the tip where one person can stand. I would have used a berm to keep most of the island ramp out of the high water levels.

crossbowside copy

Other than that it is a pretty simple design. The funny thing is, I worked this up in a few hours and if I would have entered it I would still be in the competition. (Still would have lost…ha)


Besides a good idea, finding the right viewpoint or composition to showcase your concept is really difficult. Anymore bridge competitions out there so I can get more practice?