This type of competition is intended to attract the world's best bridge designers, who often spend many months preparing their entries at great expense. Usually, clients make the process extremely competitive to find the best solutions aesthetically and technically. But are clients doing enough to keep the process fair for all participants?
PRIDE. My competition experience includes the preparations of the winning design submissions for Italy's Messina suspension bridge; New York City's suspension-and-cable-stayed replacement for the Williamsburg Bridge; Washington, D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson box-girder bridge; and Maryland's Severn River concrete-arch bridge in Annapolis. I know from experience that my colleagues and I, even when we do not win, often enjoy a sense of achievement just from participating.
True, we often feel rushed. Typically, a design competition lasts just a short time. For the Stonecutters Bridge competition held last year, the prequalification phase lasted a month, the stage-one design phase lasted another month and stage two took about another four months. Each competitor was permitted to submit two schemes at most.
Any company that enters such a competition must commit an experienced and dedicated lead bridge engineer and team to come up with a potential winner in such a short period. There are many factors to consider: cost, aesthetics, structural durability and performance, constructibility, construction schedule, operations and maintenance...even feng shui. For the Stonecutters contest, we participated on an international team that took into account the Oriental view of aesthetic proportion and environmental harmony. Aerodynamic stability, however, was the key design constraint because of the proposed record-long main span, 1,018 meters.
With so many factors to consider, every stage of the Stonecutters competition was judged by two independent committees, one concerned with aesthetics, the other with technical considerations. The judges weighted the scores: 70% for the technical, 30% for the aesthetic. Yet for all the weight given in such competitions to technical considerations, there are widespread problems in finding the most technically qualified experts to serve on these evaluation panels.
Competition organizers try to staff these panels with locally and internationally renowned professors and engineers. But many of the world's best bridge engineers and architects prefer to participate in such competitions rather than judge them. Consequently, the technical aspects of the designs are not always judged competently.
I have a suggestion for improving the technical competence of such panels: Augment them with technical experts from the submissions that fail to make it past the first stage. Not only would these participants have more technical ability but also, having gone through the competition's first stage, they would already possess intimate knowledge of the contest regulations.
I also believe that evaluation panels ought to invite the shortlisted contestants to make presentations, particularly when the entries involve innovative approaches and state-of-the-art designs. Having dealt with several evaluators who were not fully aware of relel they ought to give us the opportunity to respond adequately to their technical and aesthetic concerns. Giving us that opportunity would go a long way toward helping the participants feel they had not wasted their time and money on trying to impress the evaluators.
Even with a stipend, the compensation for preparing a submission rarely covers the expense. The cost typically exceeds a normal design's by three to four times. Some firms consider that another marketing expenditure; even so, it means a burden on overhead. And it is a sunk cost if the design cannot be recycled. For the Stonecutters conceptual design, the rules stated that the copyrights on the submissions become Hong Kong's property.
SURPRISE. Last March, the Hong Kong Highways Department surprised the contestants by awarding the $52-million detailed-design contract to Ove Arup & Partners, which had not entered the competition. Arup had served instead as the department's competition advisor. In that capacity, it had overseen the contest submissions by the five shortlisted teams including Halcrow Group Ltd., which had submitted the winning conceptual design for the $128,000 prize (ENR 9/25/00 p. 12); and HNTB Corp. with Earth Tech Inc. and others, which together had won an honorable mention.
It will be interesting, to put it mildly, to see how the final design turns out and whether it incorporates any features of the five shortlisted submissions. It will be interesting also to see whether this experience deters any leading bridge engineers from participating again in such a competition