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Letters: In praise of Sunderland Council

I write not to criticise Sunderland Council’s proposed bridge but to praise it. Praise is required because an alternative view to those already reported by NCE is necessary if a reasonably considered conclusion is to be formed.

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Testament to the power of democracy

Reported criticisms complain of the bridge not being the right structural solution affording little or no room for contractor innovation, difficulty of construction and, most recently, its high risk tower design making it hard to nail down a fixed price.

A reading of the criticisms drive one to conclude that the council has got things terribly wrong. That is not a fair conclusion.

The council exercised the power of democracy. Wanting a bridge to be proud of, and one which would generate interest in the area, they elected to engage an architect whose vision could produce a solution that would receive their approval. Not something born of the design and build process whose object is the cheapest price.

Contrary to what might be deduced, there is no legal requirement for designs to afford facility for contractor innovation. The council hasn’t done anything wrong.

Recently, I listened to Michel Virlogeux speak on the problems that he encountered with the design and construction of the Millau Viaduct in France.

Not once did he express a word of complaint in overcoming these problems.

Tenderers withdraw from tendering processes all the time for many diff erent reasons. The result can only be good for the two remaining and I wish them well.

I am not dismayed by the doom and gloom of recent reporting. I find it heartening to see a council seeking to rise above the mundane for its major infrastructure.

  • Gordon Bathgate (F), GB Consulting, gordon.bathgate@gbc51.com

 

Structures must have design life

I agree wholeheartedly with Simon Bourne (NCE 14 February) that construction understanding must be at the heart of good infrastructure design; however, it is not, in my view, the be-all and end-all.

With the life of our infrastructure extending for many decades and weaving its way through, under and over our cities and landscape, the need for excellent design that is sensitive to people and to the environment is hugely important - arguably much more so for transportation structures than for other buildings - yet the obligation to “produce elegant structures for [the benefit of] society” is more frequently unfulfi lled in this area of construction than in any other.

Unfortunately, the complexity of site conditions, whether wet, remote and rural or dense and urban, and the twin imperatives of cost and programme too often result in construction solutions which are innovative but unattractive.

It is not enough to say that, by keeping solutions simple, the aesthetics will naturally look after themselves or that transportation infrastructure needs little more than a structurally “honest” design to be an acceptably attractive form. It is also dangerous to think that “improvement” can sensibly be achieved with the addition of an aesthetic layer which, while I don’t believe this is what Bourne is advocating, could be easily misinterpreted in his words.

Whether in education or in practice the care paid to aesthetics - particularly issues of context, scale, form and detail - must be considered equally to other core requirements, so that it is an intrinsic and central part of design that will ensure the long term investment in infrastructure truly benefits society for generations to come.

If the training of engineers is lacking in this regard, then the best solution must be teamwork and a genuine, open dialogue between the engineering and architectural professions, rather than a single “powerful fi gure” whose judgement may be flawed.

In reacting against design which may be considered wilful or overly complex, it is equally important to guard against the other extreme: infrastructure design where a focus on the engineering problem fails to address wider social and environmental needs.

  • Martin Knight, Knight Architects, m.knight@knightarchitects.co.uk

 

The devil’s in the ditches

I was encouraged by, and in total agreement with, the excellent letter by Alan Mordey (NCE 21 February) extolling the reasons for the continuing (and unnecessary) road flooding we have recently been experiencing.

At last someone else has recognised the problem!

I fear however that there are additional factors in this debacle - namely the slashing of funds by central government to the county councils (the highway authorities) whose responsibility most of these problems are.

Also, land owners are obliged to keep ditches and grips clear, but this is rarely enforced - again due to lack of funds.

In this south east corner of Surrey the identical problems occur, so I suspect that it is a nationwide phenomenon.

Could not the ICE lobby ministers to emphasise that this policy is very shortsighted and that the costs to the economy in the form of insurance pay-outs and premiums far exceeds the cost of regular and routine maintenance.

After all, we should not emulate some of the developing countries’ poor infrastructure records - only look to the French roads, for example, to see how it should be done!

  • Neville Harrison (F), neville@najack.plus.com

 

Youthful interest in engineering

We should not despair at attracting the next generation. Presenting at a careers fair at my son’s school, I was pleasantly surprised at the interest in civil engineering.

The attractions were an interesting, varied, practically creative and problem solving profession.

I asked which of Atkins’ arguments inspired most. They opted for, “solve the great engineering challenges of today”. They also resonated with my mission statement, “serve the practical needs of mankind”, when I added this.

  • Simon Bird (M), sandjbird@gmail.com

 

Look to France for Severn model

We have evidently spawned a generation of engineers who treat the River Severn like a blank canvas upon which any scheme and alignment can be imposed without the slightest consideration of the existing physical, chemical or biological regimes.

Twenty five years ago Severn Tidal Power Group undertook the only detailed design study to be undertaken in the last 102 years. Working with the active scientific community, a viable construction method, construction sequence and alignment was carefully realised. If evidence from a small scheme is thought useful, the Rance scheme has been operating in France with about a 99% serviceability since 1966. An initial ebb and flood operating regime was, early, replaced by ebb-only with pumping.

In respect of environmental consequences, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle was set up in 1883 on a bluff overlooking what is now the barrage site. Environmental zealots show a contempt for the sanctity and integrity of science when they maintain “there is no data”. But over the last 130 years at Mnd’HN’s, massive archives and a library full of reports on Rance have been assembled.

This shows that due to barrage operation, the bird and fish fauna is now more abundant and biodiverse. Bearing in mind that our French colleagues accomplished this and started operating 47 years ago, what’s stopping us now? One can only hope that the French, with such a prestigious research institute, realise that the environmental zealots misrepresent the Severn to the same degree as La Rance.

Is it a pious hope that the Department of Energy and Climate Change review might free us from the “crackpot schemes” and the zealots? Our grandchildren would thank us.

  • Rob Kirby robkirby@globalnet.co.uk

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