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Credit where it's due

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According to news from Buckingham Palace this week, the Queen has opened 15 bridges during her reign.

Her fi rst was Pelham Bridge, Lincolnshire, in June 1958 and the most recent was the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in May 2002. If you are interested the full list is at www.nceplus. co. uk.

How many of these bridges are ascribed to engineers I'm not sure. Does it matter anyway?

Probably not to Her Majesty, nor to the public in general, or any of the users of these structures.

But judging from recent letters and this week's article, it clearly matters a very great deal to the engineering profession.

And this is great news for the today's engineers - because perhaps there will at last be motivation to do something about the problem of appropriate credit for bridge design.

Over the last decade or so bridge design has been seized upon by the architectural profession - high-jacked if you like - as an area in which their skills can be expressed and services sold to clients.

They have been successful.

Bridges - the purest expression of structural engineering form - were once considered as the exclusive playground of engineers. No longer is this the case and, for the engineering profession, it hurts.

It hurts because the profession knows all too well that its role in the bridge design process has been denigrated before its eyes. And it hurts because engineers know that without their skills the design coveted by the client and credited to the architect would not stand up.

The issue of whether or not engineers should lead in the design of bridges is not new.

Nine years ago NCE ran an article discussing just this question (NCE 21/28 August 1997).

Even then we pointed out that the growth in bridge design competitions, the increasing desire on the part of clients to use 'landmark' bridges to kickstart regeneration and the use of computer design technology had altered the boundaries of the possible.

'Clients have woken up to the idea of good design, ' said the article. And clearly the architectural profession, quick off the mark, grabbed the opportunity to lead the design process and dominate, if not direct, the field of bridge competitions.

he RIBA competition process has not served engineers well. And by all accounts it hasn't served clients that well either. However engineers should resist the urge to blame the architectural profession and instead prompt the engineering bodies to make their voice heard.

It is clear that, despite reservations, the Institution of Civil Engineers must take a role in helping the engineering profession re-impose itself on the bridge design process.

For the sake of clients and good structural design, it must ensure that the best independent engineering advisors are appointed to all competition panels - RIBA or otherwise.

Beyond this the profession must help itself. It must commit to designing only the finest structures possible and fight against its natural bent toward conservatism and compliance to standard and the norm. We have much to learn about self promotion from our architect friends.

But we know that engineers are creative and that engineers can deliver designs as good - if not better - than architects. The Institution must wrest back the initiative from RIBA and help the engineering profession demonstrate to clients that they need engineers to provide them with the best possible solutions.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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