A (Golden) Bear of a Bridge

The Berkeley team works on 'Calatrava,' Cal's award-winning 17th annual National Student Steel Bridge Competition entry. Photo credit: Raman Bhatia The Berkeley team works on 'Calatrava,' Cal's award-winning 17th annual National Student Steel Bridge Competition entry. (Photo by Raman Bhatia.)It’s the size of a theater catwalk and weighs just 142 pounds. But the gently arched bridge—designed, built and ambitiously named “Calatrava” by Cal engineering students—is the new heavyweight champ of collegiate bridge building. The 21-foot-long span swept a field of 42 finalists on May 23–24 to capture top honors at the 2008 National Student Steel Bridge Competition. The name for this year’s entry honors noted Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava while demonstrating some “Cal” school pride.

The victory was UC Berkeley’s first in the contest’s 17-year history. Sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Steel Construction, the elite competition attracts engineering students from around the country vying to construct the best 1:10 scale model steel bridge. This year’s event drew teams from 182 universities to regional contests that culminated in the finals at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“This gives us a chance to apply the material we get in class,” says Raman Bhatia (B.S. ’08 CEE), the 22-year-old captain of the 25-member Calatrava team. “Everyone was really dedicated to winning.” That’s no understatement: Bhatia was one of five Cal seniors who skipped Commencement 2008 in favor of a trip to the finals.

The Calatrava team displays their awards. Photo courtesy of Raman Bhatia The Calatrava team displays their awards. (Photo by of Raman Bhatia.)A four-year participant, Bhatia credits team continuity for this year’s triumph. The bridge won first place in the “lightness” and structural “efficiency” categories, and finished second in “construction speed” and construction “economy” on its way to seizing the overall title. Last year’s Berkeley bridge won for “stiffness” while finishing ninth overall. “This year, we sacrificed some of that for lightness,” Bhatia says.

Building a prize-winning bridge, even one barely long enough to span a creek, is labor-intensive work. The students plotted out the design from August through December last year before starting construction. Calatrava consists of 38 separate components and thousands of soldered lattice-like pieces. It was fabricated over a matter of months in the bay at Davis Hall. “This year, we tried to put some kind of aesthetic in it. It looks really nice and very clean,” Bhatia says.

Fearing a mishap during shipping, three students shuttled the disassembled bridge cross-country in a rented van. The finals, staged at the University of Florida’s gym, offered all the thrills of a major sporting event. There were unfortunate spills as well: An enormous crash shook the gym floor while Cal’s six-member building crew raced to assemble the bridge in a timed test. Nearby, the University of Texas at Austin’s bridge had partially collapsed while undergoing a load test to see if it could carry the requisite 2,500-pound weight.

Civil and environmental engineering student Raman Bhatia, captain of Calatrava team, holds Cal's First Place plaque. Photo credit: Abby Cohn Civil and environmental engineering student Raman Bhatia, captain of Calatrava team, holds Cal's First Place plaque. (Photo by Abby Cohn.)“That was one dramatic moment,” says Bhatia, who witnessed the incident from the bleachers. “I was glad it wasn’t us.” Apart from a single bolt dropped by a startled Cal crew member, the well-rehearsed team barely missed a beat. Though the fallen part resulted in a 15-second penalty, Cal completed the bridge in 3:38 minutes, finishing second in the speed category to SUNY College of Technology at Canton.

Winning the bridge-building title was akin to an NCAA championship. “None of us is really an athlete of any kind,” says Bhatia, who plans to pursue graduate studies at Stanford this fall in management science and engineering. “We’re not going to be on the football team or on the basketball team, but we’re all very competitive. This gives us a chance to strive.” Second-place honors went to the host University of Florida and third to perennially strong UC Davis.

Once reassembled in Berkeley, Calatrava will be painted white (a color often employed by the Spanish architect) and go on permanent display in Davis Hall.


For more on this story and to watch a video of the speed event, please visit this page.