Readers may remember my post about the footbridge in Miami which collapsed onto a road full of cars during installation. A Twitter follower sends me an update, and the first thing I notice is this:
The plans for Florida International University’s pedestrian bridge included an innovative design approach by FIGG Bridge Engineers.
So the bridge was designed by FIGG; the original news reports said the engineering was carried out by Munilla Construction Management (MCM). This link provides some clarity:
FIGG Bridge Engineers, Inc. is the designer of the bridge, working for MCM.
Ah. In my original post I said:
A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are.
In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur. Now I don’t know if that was the case at the Munilla Construction company, but somehow they’ve gone from an outfit who could deliver a project with their eyes closed to one that has just dropped a simple footbridge on eight lanes of highway. If I were investigating, I’d want to know who did the actual design and where it was done. I’d be willing to bet a hundred quid the calculations and finite element modelling were done outside the US to save money, or subcontracted to another company, and supervision – which involves expensive Americans – was at nowhere near the levels it should have been.
So I got the subcontracting part right. Were the calculations done outside the US? Well, FIGG is a US-based group but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a design office in Mexico employing number-crunching engineers on the cheap. But given the lead design engineer is called Denney Pate, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here. Back to the article:
Bolton Perez & Associates, the project’s construction engineering and inspection contractor
It is possible that the project’s prime contractor, MCM, and its post-tensioning subcontractor, in attempting to fix the problems, made an error that caused the bridge’s single truss to crack and give way.
So here are two more subcontracted bodies. Now it’s not unusual to bring in specialist inspectors and technical services, but it does add to the complexity of who’s in charge and where responsibility lies meaning the project management needs to be spot-on.
An official with FIU asked a representative with Bolton Perez their opinion of FIGG’s presentation analysis. Bolton, Perez said they could not comment at the moment, but would “expedite” a response in 2-3 days, according to the notes.
It’s telling that there is no mention of MCM in this exchange. What were they doing, then? Getting ready for Pride month? This is also illuminating:
Rice, the Georgia forensic engineer, remains most perplexed over the designer’s use of a single truss. “That just blew me away,” he says. “To have a single truss like that is violating one of the first tenants of structural engineering—provide redundancy. If you’re going to make a truss bridge, you have at least two trusses,” he argues.
Okay, so this is what FIGG say on their website:
Bridges designed by FIGG are purposeful works of art, functional sculptures within the landscape, that are created through a careful analysis of the site, contextual and environmental sensitivity, and a regional approach that encompasses a community’s particular needs, as well as the realities of funding and maintenance.
By capturing the powers of imagination, function, and technology, we build bridges that improve the nation’s infrastructure, while enhancing the appearance of communities across America and the quality of life for the people who live in them.
So they look nice but collapse during installation in a manner detrimental to the quality of life for those passing beneath them at the time.
There are two points to make here. Firstly, MCM seem to have been adding little value; the fact their name doesn’t even come up in descriptions of the engineers’ discussions speaks volumes. This supports my original theory that they were an outfit which is good at winning projects via connections and box-ticking, but cannot actually execute any meaningful work nor adequately supervise those that do. This is modern business in a nutshell.
Secondly, the whole thing points to colossal organisational failure in the face of serious technical problems. There are a lot of people involved without clear roles and responsibilities with everyone talking, sharing opinions, and a*se-covering but nobody in charge and accountable (I suspect the investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX will reveal similar patterns). This represents a regression in terms of organisational and technical capabilities.
Now granted I am speculating but the incontrovertible facts are cracks were detected in the truss structure before the installation attempt and the engineers knew about them, but they went ahead with the installation anyway without bothering to close the road to traffic. It then collapsed and killed people. If this isn’t massive organisational failure then I don’t know what is.