Sustainable Bridge Design, Engineering, Construction, and Maintenance in the Biden Era and Beyond

Learn the latest about the future of bridge-related work and how it could impact your business.

Many people think that sustainable bridge design and construction is all about being green, meaning that the primary — or only — focus is on environmental factors. The truth is that there’s much more to it than that.

A broader vision of sustainability involves three key things, known as the pillars of the movement: 

  • Taking care of the planet.
  • Improving the economy.
  • Providing benefits to society.

The incoming Biden administration is committed to these issues and sustainability overall. This makes it the ideal time to become familiar with a broader approach to sustainable bridge design, development, construction, and maintenance, if you’re not already. As we move into the future, sustainable bridges must be environmentally friendly. That’s a given. They also have to improve the economies of the surrounding communities and the social situations of the people living in them.

Did you know: Sustainability can be represented by a simple formula: Balance = Supply – Demand? As long as the balance in the equation remains neutral or positive, a bridge is sustainable. There is enough supply of the resources used to build it to continue to develop future projects. If it falls below, it means that a case hasn’t — or can’t — be made for building the structure.

The social, environmental, and economic pillars of sustainable bridge development.

Let’s take a closer look at the three pillars of genuinely sustainable bridge building. 

Environmental

This component is the best known of the three. Almost every industry, including construction, has been consuming more resources than they produce or return to the planet for centuries. Improvements have been made, but the system is still highly wasteful. Ultimately, moving beyond “greening” the construction process involves reducing the materials and energy used and replenishing what’s consumed so the Earth can recover from the bridge development process. 

Think about it: It’s great to be green. It is environmentally responsible. However, it’s more critical to be sustainable. If the Earth runs out of resources, being green won’t matter.

Economic

When it comes to economic sustainability, the ultimate financial benefit of a project must be greater than the cost of designing, building, and maintaining it. Economic value does not include the money that could be generated by selling a bridge after its construction for a profit. It’s all about the business and other activity it supports over its lifetime. Before a bridge project is greenlit, a case must be made that it will have a positive financial impact by doing things like making it more efficient to deliver goods and services, get people to local businesses, and travel to the workplace. 

Social

Every bridge must be designed to enhance the lives of the people in the communities it serves. This might seem basic and obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many projects miss the mark and actually do harm to the areas that they’re built in, much less benefit them. Consider bridges that cause traffic congestion in residential areas, increase pollution, or cut neighborhoods in half. 

Examples of social benefits include making it easier for people to get around, reducing traffic congestion, encouraging social interaction, and providing ways for pedestrians and all types of vehicles, including bicycles, public transit, cars, and trucks, to use bridges safely.

Remember: It’s not good enough for bridges to provide social benefits for today only. They must also be designed with a vision toward doing so long into the future.

What’s ahead for sustainable bridge construction.

When it comes to the best bridge development projects, the industry has gone a long way toward being fully sustainable while bridges are being built, especially when you consider the supply chain, materials used, and construction methods. This isn’t the case on all job sites, however. In the future, more of the companies working in bridge construction will have to leverage the sustainability best practices used on the most efficient, high-visibility projects in their everyday work on simple structures.

The next step for bridge construction and management companies is to strive to increase the lifespan of bridges. 

For nearly a century, the projected useful life of most structures was 50 years. However, millennia ago, the Romans built viaducts that are still in use today, thousands of years later. What if today’s bridge designers thought longer term about structural longevity? What if bridges were built to last centuries rather than decades? Imagine the impact that it could have on the environment and sustainability overall. It only takes simple math to figure out that a bridge that lasts 250 years rather than 50 reduces its impact on the environment by nearly 80%, even if you factor in ongoing maintenance.

While sustainable development could have a negative financial impact on bridge construction companies (fewer opportunities and less money), it may end up increasing revenue in the long run. 

  • Businesses will earn higher margins on construction projects that are more costly because they use expensive durable materials and complex construction methods.
  • There will be additional bridge maintenance work throughout the lives of sustainable viaducts.
  • The structures will have to be updated often to add new technology and features and to respond to new transportation methods, such as self-driving cars.
  • As environmental conditions and protection efforts evolve, sustainable bridges will have to be retrofitted to address them.
  • Finally, existing viaducts that could last much longer than their initial design lives may be adapted into “semi” sustainable structures.

Companies that are concerned about whether sustainable bridge construction could cut into their bottom lines should rest assured knowing that the changeover will also present opportunities.

The “fourth” pillar: education.

Many experts believe that the success of sustainable bridge development requires a fourth pillar to make the other three as effective as they can possibly be: providing ongoing education for bridge designers, engineers, contractors, and managers about the social, environmental, and economic aspects of sustainable bridge development. It’s the best way for them to stay up to date on the latest concepts and be able to contribute their own creative and innovative ideas to the field. This will allow workers everywhere to add value and continue to improve all aspects of sustainable bridge design, development, construction, and maintenance.

BridgeMasters is committed to providing the latest information about the bridge industry, including sustainable design. Check in regularly to stay up to date.

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