What makes a bridge look good is a subject that brings out strong opinions in engineer and layman alike.
And while it is not something that lends itself to prescriptive rules, Brown & Root principal engineer Dr David Morris believes he has found a way to take advantage of computer technology to help raise the standard of bridge aesthetics.
Morris is developing a multimedia system Millennium quality bridges to demonstrate the importance of appearance in design. The technology allows presentation in a way that simply is not possible in a book, he says.
The idea, he explains, is to provide examples of things that have worked well, and not so well, and to generate discussion of the merits of different ideas during a design's development. He is keen to maintain a breadth of approach, from the overall bridge to how well all the details fit together.
Video, photographs and 3D AutoCAD images are included with text on an interactive format CD. There are excerpts from leading publications on the topic, as well as a program developed at Cardiff University by PhD student Stephen Evans. This works as a tutorial, allowing proportions of a bridge to be changed.
Morris is also writing a paper which includes a spreadsheet against which the aesthetics of a particular bridge can be quantified using weighted values. Such a system would encourage designers to consider all the different aspects, while still retaining a subjective approach.
Bridge design should be looked at holistically, Morris believes. The system is not intended to be installed in the office just so that bridge aesthetics could be 'looked up and applied'. Instead, a feel for it should grow on the engineer. Better bridge aesthetics would have the effect of raising the profession's standing, he maintains. 'Physical appearance is what the public judges us on,' he says.
'Young engineers are not at present encouraged to develop creative design skills in the way that architectural students are.'
Aesthetics in engineering design is something that needs serious attention, agrees Dr John Eyre, head of structures in University College London's department of civil and environmental engineering. UCL plans to make changes to its own undergraduate course, drawing on its experience of an MSc in structural design, established in 1992, with a major emphasis on project work in a design studio.
In traditional courses, students tend not develop the understanding of structures and the ability to think laterally and creatively, believes Eyre.
Better design education would radically change the atmosphere on courses, Eyre adds. Civils courses are often perceived as boring, whereas architecture courses are very much alive, with high student commitment.
The idea for Morris' CD crystallised from a Royal Fine Art Commission seminar in June 1995 on design education for engineers. According to RFAC secretary Francis Golding, the project combines joint RFAC interests in the visual education of engineers and the aesthetics of bridge design in a fascinating and practical way.
At the time of the seminar, Morris was a lecturer at Sheffield University, where he did his utmost to promote good and creative bridge design, including setting his students an exercise on the Poole Crossing competition (NCE 6 June 1996). When he left the university in summer 1996 he looked for alternative sources of funding to continue developing the software.
A grant of £10,000 from the Institution of Civil Engineers research and development enabling fund set the project well on its way, and Morris' employer Brown & Root allocated him time for its development and has continued its commitment, supporting the final phase. Highways Agency has also given support.
The more engineers are involved in its development, the greater the value of the software, Morris believes. To this end, he has been gathering examples of good design - and particularly things that have not worked. While people are keen to submit details of things they are proud of, they are wary of admitting to less successful schemes.
More examples are needed from engineers with suitable case studies, especially of illustrations and comments about aspects that seemed a good idea at the design stage but turned out not to work in practice. 'I am almost tempted to say that I won't put in someone's good examples unless they tell me about something that didn't work as well,' he remarks.
There will also be an evening discussion meeting, at the ICE at 5.30pm on 23 September on 'Bridge aesthetics: can a multimedia teaching tool help engineers?'. Morris and Eyre will be speaking, as will James Sutherland and Yee Associates partner Ronald Yee.
Millennium quality bridges will be published priced £19 in January. Further details are at http://www.k2net.co.uk/ ~hh/
Anyone willing to contribute design examples, bad and good, can contact David Morris at Brown & Root, Hill Park Court, Springfield Drive, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 7NL, or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org