Montana State University

Spanning the gap: MSU architecture students put bridges to test

December 9, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Students in Montana State University School of Architecture load 360 pounds of weight onto the bridges that they designed to traverse Mandeville Creek as part of the school's second "Load the Bridges" competition held Monday. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
They weren't exactly bridges over troubled waters, but the 18 imaginative bridges the students in Montana State University's School of Architecture built over the campus' Mandeville Creek Monday did traverse some dark and frigid water.

The bridges were part of a design challenge put forth by Bruce Wrightsman, a professor in the MSU School of Architecture, to the students in his second-year design class.

"Bridge projects are pretty common in architecture schools, but usually they are made out of matchsticks or in model-scale," Wrightsman said. "I wanted to give the students a challenge that they could really build something to scale.... Something they could make by hand."

Wrightsman's gave the 18 teams of four-students each about a month to design and build a bridge that could span 10 feet over Mandeville Creek. The bridges could only weigh 120 pounds or less, but had to be capable of holding 360 pounds. Also, each bridge had to be kinetic, or be composed of parts that could bend or be disassembled.

"No matter how good a design might look on paper, it isn't a good design if you can't build it."

Wrightsman's simple rules netted a variety of designs.

One team, composed of Daniel Carr of Driggs, Idaho, Will Uebelacker of Boise, Idaho, Scott Beans of Durango, Colo. and Sarah Stevens of Handsville, Wash., looked like fine patio furniture. Build of pine stained with a redwood finish, the bridge collapsed into a snail-like circle that could be wheeled away and stored in the back of a car. Yet it held all four students and Beans' chocolate Laborador retriever, Brutus. The students said they each probably worked 50 hours on the design and were all excited because it was their first real building project. They estimated their bridge cost them about $250 for materials. While the students' entry didn't qualify for an award for the lightest bridge, they were hoping that it would be one of the bridges selected by student vote as the most aesthetically beautiful.

Another bridge was composed entirely of blue Styrofoam arches. While it held the required 360 pounds during the contest, it quickly broke down with the accumulated weight of additional students piling on to see if they could break the bridge.

"Each year the students want to see at least one bridge break," said Wrightsman, who added that the contest is in its second year. "It's part of the fun."

Another bridge was made of dowels rather than nails and looked more like a piece of Scandinavian furniture rather than a bridge.

"It is sort of like an IKEA bridge," Wrightsman said.

Winners of the lightest bridge that met the requirements was a bridge built of wood and lightweight cable that weighed 34 pounds yet held 360 pounds. Following the competition, the architecture students selected the all-wood Ikea bridge built using wood-pin connections as first in the design competition. Carr, Beans, Stevens an Uebelacker's wooden bridge that coiled up like a snail was second.

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