Flying cars are terrifying. Just take a movement to think about what they represent. You, the presumed driver, in a hovering death-trap traveling at 400 kph within a computer guided invisible freeway a couple hundred feet above the ground. Worse, you are likely commuting to your sky-tower to put in yet another 8 hours repeatedly pushing a single red button ala George Jetson. Your commute doesn’t offer elegant structures or streamlined interchanges. The towering architecture of well designed, long lasting landmarks will be missing, or invisible from your viewport as the hovering vehicle dives in a death-plunge to your garage. Flying cars represent the loss of something mankind has utilized since the first caveman tipped a tree across a river. This is a structure that has been reengineered to be longer, stronger, and lighter since the advent of the automobile. I am talking about beautiful, elegantly designed, grand bridges.
Let’s use my simple ground-based commute along Interstate 8 in sunny San Diego as an example. The multi-lane freeway moves with speed and efficiency cutting under towering concrete bridges, flowing over interchanges and cross-streets. Commuters of all professions experience a safe, efficient, and eye-pleasing drive as they travel on this carefully designed roadway system. Well…let’s just say these commuters experience a more pleasant drive than the alternative of a poorly designed roadway system or the aforementioned flying car death-trap.
I suppose being in the civil-structural design industry, I have developed an enhanced appreciation for well-designed roads, interchanges, and especially bridges. It is not all sunshine and structures-shaped-like-rainbows. During the down economy you can find yourself doing work that isn’t quite as fulfilling as elegant arches, soaring suspension bridges, and iconic interchanges.
Due to economic conditions, we fall into cycles or monotonous routines as we produce uninspired, cost effective, repetitive designs. There is a definite element of apathy in the mundane. Much like George Jetson in his sky-tower, we can find ourselves repeatedly pushing the same buttons in a sterile, uninspired environment. This is a period of time between large projects when we assemble small, efficient, bland structures like so much Lincoln Logs.
I am as guilty of this perpetuation as most of the drafters, designers, and engineers in my industry. We have clients who couldn’t care less about aesthetics, beauty, or blending the structure type to the landscape. During these times, we simply need to adhere to the lowest cost bridge that provides the base functionality of the proposed design. These bridges are usually small, ugly, and financially efficient. This work is our bread-and-butter during down economies; our simple, inelegant answer to the cost-effective needs for the high-percentage of simple, single-span, minor crossings within the United States.
“…we might have to take to the back roads to keep from blushing every time we see some of the things we have done. But on the other hand, I’m kinda human like the rest of humanity, and I’ll admit that there’s at least one or two bridges I’ve had a hand in, and when I look at them, I kinda figure I’ll have some alibi when I see St. Peter. Not all of ‘em, you understand, but some of ‘em did come out so good they make my life worth living.”
- Conde B. McCullough – Bridges
Editorial, Register-Guard (Eugene), May 7th, 1946
But there are times, when I get to work on something greater. A chance to feel that in 50 years, I will be able to point at this monumental structure and say, “I was part of that.” A convergence of opportunity, need, politics, and finances will occur, creating a glorious nexus allowing the structural and civil designers to exercise their passion.
When this perfect storm of design conditions coalesce, we have the opportunity to work on something unique and breathtaking. A structural designer will begin to grasp the budding awe-inspiring nature of the potential design as the team develops the initial concepts.
In the end, we build roadways, bridges and interchanges as if assembling a giant 3D puzzle formed from millions of disparate pieces. But initially, we begin with an idea; the concept. And a huge part of winning a job is our ability to convey that concept.
This 3D puzzle of ours came in a box without a picture to guide us. What we do in the Conceptual Design Phase is create that picture in a way that is understandable to anyone. After all, the amount of financing involved in such a crossing will require a certain level of public and political buy-in. Generating visualizations for these people, who may be more lawyer or business owner than engineer, strongly aids their perception of what they are attempting to fund. Having the training and desire to build these photo simulations or visualizations, allows us to create an understandable design cheaper, faster and better than our competition.
Controversy is often associated with these projects as the local public may not want a Signature Bridge in their backyard. Winning a Signature Bridge job isn’t always about whose design is the cheapest. (Although that is a large consideration in most cases) Winning can be about conveying an understandable design that minimizes public dissatisfaction and reduces the anxiety of the community.
The Conceptual Design Phase, sometimes known as the Marketing Phase, may be short, stress filled, and a general personal-time-eater; but it does provide an opportunity to embrace your creativity, ingenuity, and artistic nature to develop ‘your’ design. From a business perspective, your company is competing against other qualified companies, populated with experienced personnel who have established client relationships. From a more personal perspective, you will compete against your alternate who is likely equipped with similar tools, experience, and knowledge. A large part of Conceptual Structural Design is utilizing your knowledge, training, tools, and resources to out-idea your competition.
Yes! Knowledge and Tools, Training and Resources; this is why we come to AUGI. So why am I spinning a yarn about concepts and marketing instead of focusing on the latest modeling tools in Revit Structure? Why yammer on about feelings, commutes, and marketing? Perhaps it is due to something I suspect you have. You may have ‘it’ since you come here to read these articles, to pick up the bits of knowledge congealing on the forums, to see the details of the latest design software issued for our industry. It is the foremost trait I crave in the members of my design team.
You have a desire to be better than you are.
This common passion enables us to care about something more than ourselves. This desire arouses the ambition to build a legacy. It plays a key role in my aspiration to improve civilization while minimizing environmental impacts. It is this competitive motivation pushing a designer to work the oddest of hours to accomplish what the other guy cannot. And it is this trait that is at the heart of creating a successful, unique, and inspirational Conceptual Structural Design.
As I look back on my writings, I see I have failed to mention anything technical about AutoCAD, Civil 3D, Navisworks, Map 3D, Infrastructure Design, and Revit Structure. I didn’t provide screenshots depicting step-by-step techniques that demonstrate the structural design process. Don’t get me wrong, the technical aspect of what we do and how we do it is quite involved. After all, our Autodesk products are a fantastic means to an end. However, these tools alone do not guarantee you a winning conceptual structural design.
To me, it all comes down to this: It isn’t entirely about what software you use, or who your client is, or even who you work for. Bridge design is about something greater. It is the self-motivation and the insatiable desire to express our ideas. I would eagerly work with a team attempting to build a bridge that would cross nations; or with a child looking to cross a ditch on her bike. The common element, the desire to improve, drives the Conceptual Structural Design to a higher level of excellence. The Civil-Structural Design Industry is comprised of the motivated artists and ingenious problem solvers who create these unique signature bridges, interchanges, and roadways for our grandchildren to enjoy. I believe this desire to improve oneself, and the world around us, allows some structural designers to rise above others.
So yes, I am thankful we are not in an era dominated with exotic time traveling Deloreans, Spinners, or the errant Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang. (And not due to my crippling fear of heights) My colleagues in the Civil-Structural industry continue to guide the construction of the built environment in a positive direction. Ultimately, our commute, for better or worse, is governed through the ingenuity, creativity, resourcefulness, and ambition of our Engineers, Designers, Architects, and CAD Professionals. Our trade is knowledge and planning. Our product is our design. And our greatest tool is our motivation to improve.
Reuben Stone is a CADD Manager for T.Y. Lin International in San Diego, California. T.Y. Lin International is a recognized world leader in major bridge design with award-winning designs for virtually all bridge types. Reuben’s primary focus is the creation of deliverable documents for Signature Structures. His other duties include training, infrastructure support, and systems innovation. He has nearly 15 years of experience working in Civil Structural Design, Light Rail, and CADD Project Management. Although he has worked on bridges, roadways, and structures in many areas, most of his work can be seen in the western United States.
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