Building a bridge to learning
Within the next couple of years, Multnomah County will settle on a plan that will result in establishing the Burnside Bridge as a main regional lifeline in the case of a large-scale disaster like a Cascadian level seismic event.
When planners, engineers and architects begin to look at possible designs for a new or renovated bridge able to withstand a major earthquake, they'll have a ready-made pool of ideas to turn to, courtesy of a group of students studying architecture at Portland State University.
The students, all in the second and third years of their graduate studies, spent the past few months coming up with ways a new or renovated bridge might function as an integral part of the city both before and after a severe earthquake. The assignment was part of a 500-level studio class taught by Jeff Schnabel, an associate professor at PSU's School of Architecture.
In order to come up with different assignments each time he teaches the studio, Schnabel looks for real world situations that can be posed to students, who are then expected to come up with design solutions as their final projects.
"I definitely like to get a community group, a nonprofit, an agency involved so that as part of the (students') graduate experience it feels more real to them," Schnabel said. "We're taking on projects that are helping that agency or helping that nonprofit."
For the Burnside Bridge project, Schnabel took the students' assignment to a new level by setting up a collaboration between them and county staff that included brainstorming sessions and critiques. He also threw in one of his favorite twists — to have students use nighttime as the basis for their designs.
"What we typically like to do is engage them in a project that's probably outside all of their comfort zones," Schnabel said. "Very few designers and planners actually look at the nighttime condition. So, I've done a range of projects where nighttime has been the predominant context for the work, and that puts them in brand new territory."
In a previous 500-level studio, for example, students worked with the Audubon Society to design a center for night-migrating birds. The exercise, which required students to find ways to reconcile light levels that would accommodate people using the center without affecting the birds, led to what Schnabel called "interesting results." He hoped the nighttime parameter would spur similar results for the bridge project.
A matter of timing
Schnabel began thinking about the Burnside Bridge as a possible assignment for a PSU architecture class after he saw a video posted by bridge owner Multnomah County that showed how a Cascadian level seismic event would render the current structure unusable. He and Mike Pullen, the county's communications coordinator, agreed having students look at ways a new version of the bridge could function — both before and after an earthquake — would offer a unique learning opportunity.
But Schnabel had to wait for the right class in order to use it as an assignment.
"Because of the technical issues, because of the scale of the project, because of the urban issues involved in it, it really didn't lend itself to an undergraduate studio," Schnabel said.
The graduate-level studio class this past spring featured the right graduate student mix and was perfect timing-wise for the county.
Better bridge by 2025
Multnomah County currently has four options on the table to bring the Burnside Bridge up to seismic standards that will allow it to continue functioning after a major earthquake or other severe natural disaster, Pullen said. Three of the options focus on building an entirely new bridge.
The fourth calls for fixing the existing bridge. The renovation is about 14% cheaper than the other options, but is also would require so much concrete that the structure's appearance would be drastically altered, Pullen said.
The county is expected to move forward with a preferred option by fall 2020. That would allow for government approval of the plan by 2021, followed by design. Construction would probably start around 2025.
"We won't get into choosing what it will look like until two or three years from now," Pullen said.
That meant the students in the studio would be able coming up with conceptual ideas, rather than specific designs — results that carry the potential for helping shape decisions about the bridge the county may make in the future.
Before that would happen though, the county led an initial meeting, where students learned about the bridge and why it needs to be replaced or upgraded. A second meeting focused on a tour of the bridge. The students then tackled rough concepts, which they presented to a group from the county that included Pullen and county engineers. Armed with feedback from that meeting, the students then moved on to build 3-D models and produce drawings.
Third time a charm
While the county had worked on a project with students from Portland State University in the past, the Burnside Bridge effort offered staff more involvement and interaction with students. Although Schnabel stepped back for most of the interaction between the county and students, he did set the tone for the critiques.
"The county, to their credit, they said early on, "Do you just want us to be light handed, delicate in terms of these students and not really push our agenda very hard? Or do you want us if we see something we think just won't work, we tell them?' I definitely had them operate at that (latter) end of the spectrum, like the real world," Schnabel said. "I think (the county was) somewhat gentle. That said, most of the students had to go back to the drawing board at least once, and sometimes twice."
Molly Esteve, a second-year graduate student who is interested in working in the area of public interest architecture, ended up reworking her project three times, based on feedback she received.
"Jeff will tell you I'm the one who got the most ideas shot down," Esteve said with a good-natured shrug and a laugh.
Esteve originally approached the assignment with the idea of turning the bridge into a post-event memorial, but county staff helped her understand that might not be the best approach. Using their comments, she reinvented her idea, using the bridge's everyday presence as a way to extend the Portland Saturday Market, which takes place nearby during weekends from March through the end of December. Scaffolding on the bridge would provide places to locate platforms to hold vendor booths to engage the community. After a disaster, the platforms could be used as places for emergency responders and volunteers to meet.
Her original design also featured using space under the bridge as a community meeting spot post-disaster, but county staff pointed out the water would likely be polluted with oil and debris. So, Esteve re-envisioned the space under the bridge as a place where emergency personnel and rescue volunteers would meet. Boats would be able to access the area to bring in emergency supplies as well as for river rescue to move people with injuries. The approach hit a high note with county staff, she said.
Follow the money
One of the biggest lessons Esteve took away from working with the county was the realization that design doesn't
necessarily trump all other considerations — including budget and public input — when it comes to a highly visible structures like the Burnside Bridge. Students studying architecture at the college level tend to focus entirely on design aspects, without ever learning about engineering considerations until they step out on their first project in the real world. But working with two of the county's bridge engineers, Megan Neill and Emily Miletich, brought a new sense of accountability to the studio project for Esteve.
"Having the engineers in the room was wonderful," Esteve said. Finding out what they considered important to focus on gave her a new perspective that, when incorporated into her design, resulted in a better end product.
Schnabel agreed with that assessment. He points to Esteve as an example of how the county's feedback held students to higher standards that were more in line with what they will likely encounter when they begin working with paying clients.
"Either one of her (first) two schemes, I would have been perfectly comfortable having her move forward, from a purely academic standpoint," Schnabel said. "But by (me) deferring to the county, I think she got a richer experience than me just saying, "Sure, let's go forward with that.'
"To (Molly's) credit, her third version really did strike a good chord with the (county)," he added.
Into the future
"They took our feedback very seriously and worked with us as if we were the client," Pullen said. "Bridges are typically designed by engineers, compared with buildings where architects put their stamp on
it and make it possible. With bridges it's the opposite. Engineers dictate the form and architects do more aesthetic elements. It was sort of an a-ha moment for the students."
While the resulting proposed designs are what Pullen describes as "still pretty far outside the box," he sees them as having the potential to help focus and direct future design discussions for either replacing or renovating the Burnside Bridge.
"I think you can look at the concepts and think, 'Wow, they're futuristic," he said. "But there are elements of them that we think could become part of a finished project because they're conceptual."
That would be an ideal end result as far as Schnabel is concerned. Using the night-time bird sanctuary ideas that students in the 500-level studio came up with last year, Schnabel worked with the Audubon Society to come up with a range of strategies that architects could use in order to make buildings in general bird-safe at night.
"We probably won't see a bridge scheme incorporated (from the student work)," he said. "But where I think it's really
helpful is that you have 16 really engaged students that are thinking about work in a different way. I would say there are most certainly ideas that may come out of that."