Building bridges changes lives.
Arup engineers said they had developed BridgeTool, originally based on a spreadsheet, to help engineers overseas design and build bridges in rural areas more quickly and cheaply in order to alleviate poverty. It has been used in recent projects to construct bridges in Rwanda and Panama.
Arup volunteers travelled to Panama earlier this year to build a bridge connecting the villages of Arriba, Teria Nacimiento and El Caracoral. The new suspension bridge is 8m high and spans a distance of 46m across the river Cricito. With flooding previously making crossing the river safely impossible for four months of the year, the bridge now provides vital access to local schools, markets and medical facilities, said Arup.
Suspension bridges are favoured because they can span a river where the clearance between the bridge and the valley floor is too small for a suspended bridge design. Cables for the bridges are also typically donated for free to Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), reducing the cost of projects. Tens of thousands more such bridges are needed in the developing world but Bridges to Prosperity has so far built around 200.
The spreadsheet takes in variables and outputs them as a single design. Arup engineer Phil Borowiec said: "It allows you to understand the key elements of the bridge, such as tower heights, size of the actual sections for the towers, and the size of the anchors."
He added: "The aim is that any engineer in the world can pick up the spreadsheet and the manual we are working on and know the fundamental basics of how to design a suspension footbridge."
It is hoped that a DIY ethos will then take root in the area, allowing local engineers to develop and build their own bridges. "The idea is that B2P can leave the country with a sustainable bridge-building programme in place," said Borowiec. "The charity has a dozen staff members, so they can't make all these designs themselves. They are relying on third-party individuals to carry out feasibility studies and work with governments in these countries."
Borowiec's colleague, Arup engineer Kayin Dawoodi, said B2P was working in developing nations with universities and technical colleges to pass on its expertise. The BridgeTool software has been under development for four years and is likely to be finished and made more widely available by next summer, along with supporting bridge-building documentation. It will help to reduce project costs, said Dawoodi.
"You save on design time, which effectively is money. The software is based on engineering first principles, in order that the designs can be understood and constructed anywhere in the world."
Sites for bridges have to be identified and the support of the local community gained before projects can proceed. The spreadsheet helps to optimise designs, with less ad hoc work necessary, and less wastage of materials. Borowiec and Dawoodi, in addition to their day jobs, are the trustees of the British arm of the charity, its first outside Denver in the US, where it is headquartered. They are looking to raise awareness of the charity's work, find potential sponsors in Britain, and get more engineering firms involved.
Dawoodi said the building of a bridge could have a "massive impact" on life in a community in the developing world, including making it easier for residents to access healthcare services, get goods to market, and for children to make the journey to school.
"We are establishing B2P as a UK charity," said Borowiec. "We are almost there and we are keen to hear from potential sponsors and engineering firms in the UK who are keen to be involved. We are getting a lot of interest."
Three years ago the charity was building three bridges a year but it has ambitious plans.
"We are building 40 bridges a year now and we are aiming for 100 a year in the next three years," said Borowiec.