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CROSS Safety Report

Asymmetric bridge design and construction – a near miss

Report ID: 262 Published: 1 October 2011 Region: CROSS-UK

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During the construction stage of an arch footbridge a design error was identified that had been indirectly revealed by an associated error in construction.

Key Learning Outcomes

For civil and structural design engineers:

  • A quality assurance system within your organisation, that includes the internal checking of calculations, can help prevent safety issues with computer programs from occurring

  • Competent supervision of design by experienced personnel can allow less experienced engineers to develop a feel for the right solution and ensure the design is effectively communicated

  • Be aware of the limitations of analysis programs in particular where complex geometries are involved such as skewed reactions. It is good practice to carry out sense checks and validate all design outputs from proprietary design and analysis software.

Full Report

Find out more about the Full Report

The Full Report below has been submitted to CROSS and describes the reporter’s experience. The text has been edited for clarity and to ensure anonymity and confidentiality by removing any identifiable details. If you would like to know more about our secure reporting process or submit a report yourself, please visit the reporting to CROSS-UK page.


During the construction stage of an arch footbridge, says a reporter, a design error was identified that had been indirectly revealed by an associated error in construction. It is reported that effective correction of these errors was expensive but resolved the potential performance safety issues.

Bridge design

The bridge was designed to be constructed from four precast concrete arch legs, two each side which were to be cast integrally with an insitu deck to create an open spandrel arch elevation with two legs on each side supported on spherical bearings. The bridge was skew and curved in plan. The legs tapered longitudinally and, in order to aesthetically enhance the simplicity of the elevation, had skewed cross sections.

The bridge was designed using a three dimensional frame model with grillage type members representing the deck, and beam members representing each leg. Pinned supports were positioned at the deck ends and at the base of each arch leg. Reactions from the analysis model were aligned to the global axes and would therefore not be suitable as input into the bearing schedule without translation to the proposed local axes of the bearing.

Poor communication of design

The drawings being prepared for the arch springing area were given a lot of attention, but this was focused on the aesthetic and construction aspects. However, although the designer correctly extracted forces from the model, it is believed that they gave insufficient attention to the drawings being prepared and how they communicated their design. Consequently, they did not realise that the bearings were shown to be aligned parallel to the plan skew of the bridge and not perpendicular to the line of thrust from the arch legs as was his design intent. The error was compounded by the checker who suffered a similar lack of appreciation of what was shown on the drawings and agreed the design to be correct. See Figure 1. 

Figure 1: loads from design model

Whilst dealing with construction issues related to the casting of the arch legs a senior engineer noted the anomaly between what was shown on the drawings and the figures in the bearing schedule and, after investigating the design calculations, concluded that the actual lateral load on the bearing would have been some four times greater than required by the schedule. Although the bridge legs had not been erected, they had been cast.

The construction error, which involved incorrect reinforcement layout, had already necessitated the decision to recast the legs. It was at this stage that it is reported that the design error was detected. It also provided the time window to revise the leg end geometry to eliminate the undesirable component of lateral reaction and restore the original design intent. It was however necessary to undertake some challenging re-modelling of the bridge foundations that were already cast.

Discovery of design error on site

The discovery of the design error was fortuitous. If there had been no issues with the precasting of the concrete legs, the additional load on the bridge support would probably have remained undiscovered until the temporary works for the insitu deck were released. Under these circumstances the bearings would have experienced significantly larger lateral loads than they were designed for. This may have led to the safety or the performance of the bridge being compromised.

It is however more likely that the overloading would have manifested itself before the falsework was fully released giving an opportunity to reinstate temporary support and thus address the issue. This would, however, have left the considerable problem of restoring the bridge to a safe condition. Overall, the errors resulted in significant costs and delay to the works on site. However, the bridge was duly safely constructed and is now complete and in service.

Dissemination of key lessons learnt

Once the problem had been resolved, a programme of dissemination within the company of the issues involved and lessons learnt was undertaken. This improved awareness of the problems that can arise in structures with complex and unusual geometry. During the initial dissemination of the information, it became clear that others had experienced problems when designs involved bearings with non-vertical axes. This highlighted the challenges of ensuring that lessons from experience are not lost.

A further difficulty in preventing the reoccurrence of errors became apparent when considering the wider implications. It is relatively straightforward to warn of the issues of bearing alignment in precast concrete arches and to have good confidence that the same error should be avoided in future bridge designs. However, the post project reviews of this particular lesson have also emphasised the need for greater global awareness. It was evident that there was a need to identify where a similar issue could occur in a different structural form or context. Consequently, an extensive series of presentations and workshops have been organised within the company to widely disseminate the key lessons learned.

Expert Panel Comments

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Expert Panels comment on the reports we receive. They use their experience to help you understand what can be learned from the reports. If you would like to know more, please visit the CROSS-UK Expert Panels page.

The provision of this report from a major consulting firm is much appreciated and illustrates how lessons learned within an organisation can be shared amongst the wider engineering community. This is a case of identifying a precursor to a potentially more serious event which is one of the most effective ways of preventing failures. The use of analysis software must include recognition of the limitations of the tool being used and the contributors of this report should be applauded for their willingness to open their processes up to external scrutiny.

The issue is by no means unique and represents a problem with analysis where some software cannot deal with skewed reactions. There are ways of dealing with this issue and it is very important that the boundary conditions are understood by the engineer carrying out the analysis and due allowance made. There is a generic set of problems when translating a complex computer analysis into reality.

Perhaps it underscores the need to always carry out parallel hand checks to ensure output is of the right order; especially at interfaces. Whilst traditional checking is an established way to comply with QA procedures and has a valuable role, it may not always be fool proof. In a 2009 Topic Paper the Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) recommended independent review through the peer assist process whereby reviews are undertaken by experienced personnel who, from experience, can direct appropriate enquiries.

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