The Worthwhile Cost of Customer Satisfaction – Building “Bridges to Nowhere”…

Can a project that is three years late after fourteen years in the making and costing $23.5 M instead of the $3 M originally budgeted be a success?

With numbers like this one would guess it was a “public works” project. Not quite a “bridge to nowhere” but more like a bridge that is somewhere… It is a small bridge that pales in comparison to the size and scope of the new $5.5 B East Span of the Bay Bridge (currently scheduled for completion in 2013). And unlike replacing the East Span, one could argue about the necessity of building this pedestrian and bicycle bridge in the first place.

Having visited the Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay which crosses the Sacramento River in Redding, California last week and read some of the criticisms of the bridge, it made me stop and think “What are the true measures of success?”

Clearly from an aesthetic point of view, the Sundial Bridge is far superior to the typical concrete bridge for which Caltrans is well known. In regards to design, the bridge cleverly solves the challenge of not having any structure (either permanent or for construction) in the river to avoid upsetting endangered Chinook salmon runs. The translucent glass used for the deck of the bridge is not only aesthetically pleasing but it also reduces the shadow created on the river. Kudos on the aesthetics and design to Santiago Calatrava the noted Spanish architect, artist and engineer.

From a functional perspective, it not only joins the Turtle Bay Exploration Park situated on both sides of the river but it invites you to walk across the river from the museum to the botanical garden. It then connects to the Sacramento River bike / walk trail.

As to the project time line, increasing the scope of the activity – not to mention the financial resources required – obviously increased the time required. In this case, it took six years just to reach the point of hiring Calatrava for the project in 1996. The bridge was dedicated in July 2004 and has contributed to greater awareness of Redding including the predicted increase in tourism. I’m glad we stopped to enjoy this great piece of art. If you are traveling on Interstate 5, it is well worth a stop at this architectural gem.

In terms of overall finances, the McConnell Foundation, the major underwriter of the Turtle Bay Exploration Park, funded over half the project at $12 M. The City of Redding’s cost was held to the originally committed $3.1 M for a “simple” pedestrian bridge (with about $1.7 M being the amount the McConnell Foundation paid for the arboretum site to the city and $1.4 M from a federal grant). Supporters were able to secure the remaining $8 M as a state grant for the project.

Some would argue that this money could have been better spent especially in light of the surrounding community’s needs. However, the McConnell Foundation as a private foundation is entitled to spend their money as they see fit to advance their charitable mission (within certain tax guidelines). In this case, the Foundation as the “customer” got what they wanted: a signature architectural structure that not only serves the functional needs but promotes the local community. The ultimate measure of its success is the customer satisfaction that was achieved.

Beyond customer satisfaction, what was the “value added”? If they had built a plain bridge structure, would anyone detour to visit it? Would Redding have gained recognition (and tourism dollars)? Would the Exploration Park have visitors?

The value of good architecture and highly stylized product design (think Apple) are often downplayed in today’s frugal environment. However, these along with quality are essential if a company wants products that achieve more than just “15 minutes of fame”.

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