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Architects slam ‘totally illogical’ Ipswich bridge contest


Architects have hit out at the RIBA-organised Upper Orwell Crossings competition for failing to encourage collaboration with engineers from the outset

The £77 million contest, for Suffolk County Council, invites architects to draw up proposals for a pair of waterfront bridges in Ipswich.

The winning team will work with structural and civil engineer WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff (WSP PB), which is already working on the scheme for the council, to develop the project up to RIBA Stage 3.

According to briefing documents, participating architects must consult an engineer or bridge designer when drawing up a scheme but any appointment will cease at the end of the competition stage, which has no fee.

Bridge designer Cezary Bednarski of Studio Bednarski, which has won 10 previous bridge contests, said it was ‘totally illogical’ to solicit designs at competition stage without advice from the project’s actual engineer.

‘It is easily the most badly set up UK bridge design competition,’ he said. ’At the top of the list would be that rather than promoting and facilitating collaborative effort – the only way in which outstanding bridges can be designed – it sets architects against engineers.’

Ian Ritchie of Ian Ritchie Architects commented: ’The role of an architect in bridge design is usually quite limited, unless that architect has a genuine or intuitive feel for structures and the respect of the engineering firm they are working with.

‘The architect may help wth the overall form of a bridge, but is more likely to have a limited role designing the balustrades, lighting and signage and maybe the finish/colour of the bridge surfaces in addition to urban or landscape integration.’

Chris Medland of One-World Design Architects agreed, adding: ‘A pure design response to creating a crossing fundamentally requires an architect to collaborate with a structural engineer at the outset.

‘Not to do so, unless the architect in question has expert structural knowledge, risks the early design being no more than desire lines or contrived shape-making, which an engineer would somehow post-rationalise.’

Bednarski also criticised the prequalification criteria – which requires annual turnover of at least £1 million and £10 million worth of professional insurance cover – for ‘excluding talent and creativity’.

The requirement for teams to have completed three similar bridge projects in the last three to five years was also slated alongside a £10,000 honorarium to cover the finalists’ costs

Ritchie described the sum as ‘peanuts’ for the amount of work involved in producing six A1 boards featuring two separate designs for each bridge.

Commenting on the other contest restrictions, he said: ‘They imply that if a practice has designed and executed many bridges, but unfortunatley none in the past three years, then the relevance of the practice’s bridge experience and knowledge counts for nothing.

’And, the presumption must be from the client or competition organisers that the practice has jettisoned all its knowledge prior to three years ago – which is simply daft. The same can be said of turnover requirements. Knowledge and experience is not lost, unless the practice is careless, with fluctuating turnover.’

Ritchie suggested WSP PB run the contest instead and select six architects based on design skills to work alongside their engineers to draw up conceptual proposals.

Despite the criticisms, RIBA Competitions Task Group chair Martin Knight defended the contest as an ‘opportunity opened to architects’.

He said: ‘Criticism of this competition for excluding engineers misses the point that, had an architectural contest not been selected by the client, the design of three bridges of architectural significance in the regeneration of this part of the city of Ipswich would have been awarded through the client’s consultancy framework, which had already selected a consultant to progress the engineering design.

‘Rather than an opportunity closed to engineers it is an opportunity opened to architects and, while at Knight Architects we seek to work in creative collaborations with engineers, it is important to recognise the client’s prerogative to procure the project in a way which best suits them.’

The Orwell Crossings Project will create two new road crossings at Ipswich Docks (pictured) and refurbish an existing swing bridge serving the town’s wet dock and marina.

The infrastructure upgrade – which featured in former chancellor George Osborne’s 2016 budget – aims to ease road congestion in the city and improve journey times for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. It is also expected to create a new focal point for regeneration in Ipswich’s waterfront area by opening up the island between the wet dock and river for development.

Applications to participate in the contest closed yesterday (1 September), with the project scheduled to start on site in 2020. Project Compass, which investigates inefficient procurement processes, has encouraged architects to anonymously register any concerns about the contest with the government’s Mystery Shopper service.




Readers' comments (2)

  • When will we see Liverpool's downtown bridge competition...???

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  • Perhaps the council is just going through the motions - you know, get some architects to submit some ideas to make everything look right and proper, then discover that someone forgot to announce that what you really really wanted was bridges with a zoo and a swimming pool on them because that's what an old pal saw in a revelatory vision and - actually - another pal has designed just the things, with gilded cages and glass decks and all..
    In any case, the tender assessment criteria would penalise anyone boring enough to have designed lots of bridges, the council's auditor would declare that the design tender process was by the book, and of course the budget had already been drawn down in favour of the consultants who had just offered him/her and the Mayor's sidekick a couple of nice fat jobs.
    There were only some minor items still to be tied up - fixing the planning approvals, fixing some problems with the bridge abutments (and purchasing the sites for them), as well as getting all the yachties to cut their masts off so they wouldn't interfere with the bridges.
    And getting some more money from somewhere - where are those big-time tax dodgers when you need them?

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