Bridge design is more than a procurement process

News - 25 April 2019 - Communication BK

Good bridge design requires perfect interaction between all parties, but that is precisely where things often go wrong in modern practice, concludes PhD researcher Joris Smits. He argues for a role as ‘design integrator’ for the architect, to combat fragmentation of the design process.

A bridge not only needs to be functional, look good and last at least a hundred years. “A bridge also needs to serve the environment and fit in with the regional identity,” says Smits. For this to happen, it is essential that the client, the architect and the engineers work well together. Unfortunately, the balance between these three parties has been disrupted over the past two decades. “Clients are increasingly leaving the design and construction of infrastructure to market players,” Smits observes. “The design process is divided into separate pieces that are purchased separately, but there is no central coordinator. That compromises quality.”

In his PhD thesis, The Art of Bridge Design. Identifying a design approach for well-integrated, integrally-designed and socially-valued bridges, he starts by exploring the characteristics of a good bridge. Is it an iconic bridge, which attract the most attention? No, says Smits. Users and local residents are much more important than a designer who make their one-time mark on an area. The designer therefore has to talk to those who live in the area in order to come up with a good design.

This is also a key tenet of his own work, which now spans 25 years and about 300 designs. This is reflected, for example, in the award-winning design for the Juliana Bridge to the Zaanse Schans. As an architect and bridge designer at Royal HaskoningDHV, he designed a bridge that offers an unobstructed view of the UNESCO World Heritage site to which it leads. Even the lampposts do not obstruct the view for tourists taking photographs – they were designed with a curve specifically for that purpose. Thanks to its transparent design, local residents do not see the bridge as an obstacle.

This is proof that it is possible to design a bridge that is truly and carefully integrated in its environment. Nevertheless, Smits warns that clients’ “flawed market mentality” threatens such an approach. Innovative contracts, which have been on the rise in recent decades, have led to the fragmentation of knowledge.

Nowadays, contracting parties, such as Rijkswaterstaat, tend to outsource the design of infrastructure to the market. Their own in-house design knowledge is often hived off. As a result, separate parties are hired for separate parts of the project. Producing a quality plan might be a separate assignment, rather than part of the overall design. It reduces the role of an architect to ‘cosmetic advisor’, Smits observes.

There are also consequences for implementation. When communicating with the client, the contractor is no longer dealing with engineers but with buyers and managers – of which there has been an alarming increase over the past fifteen years. They check whether a construction complies with predefined requirements, not whether it is suitable for and fits in with the environment. “This may lead to a reduction in costs and disruption during construction, but will not result in a bridge that will be well integrated in its environment for a hundred years," says Smits. “You need a ‘design integrator’ to coordinate the design; designing a bridge is more than just a procurement process.”

In his PhD thesis, Smits advocates tackling the complex tasks of the modern age by introducing an integrated design team, headed by the architect. This can guarantee the balance between Beauty, Functionality and Strength, previously advocated by Roman architect Vitruvius, at every stage of the design process. Smits expects that such an approach would increase public support for new infrastructure. “This is important, because bridges belong to everyone and determine our growth and prosperity. They connect people and places, and in fact, they form the basis of our civilisation. Essential connections like bridges should not be left to managers.”