Thursday, April 28, 2011

Economist's Notebook: Missing Markets, Design and the CRC

Deck Truss CRC
The recent decision to proceed with the deck truss design for the Columbia River Crossing project rather than the more expensive but more aesthetically pleasing options (at least to some minds) brings up an interesting topic - how do we value design?

Cable Stayed CRC
In private architecture (by which I mean designing for a private client) the client decides how much aesthetics are worth to them and they pay to have a design whose marginal aesthetic value is equal to the marginal cost of said aesthetics.

And thus, for example, we get office buildings that are more than just square boxes:

Hearst Tower NYC

Apartment and condo towers also have this quality.  Part of the selling point to any apartment or condo is the aesthetics of the building itself:

Calatrava's Concept for Condo Tower in Manhattan
Even public buildings that are funded at least in part through private donations - the aesthetics are an important aspect to convince donors that they are helping realize something unique and inspiring:

Seattle Public Library
Milwaukee Art Museum
But public works projects are often lacking aesthetically and it is no wonder as there is no market for aesthetics in such projects.  In economics we call this a missing market.  It may be that residents of Oregon and Washington prefer a more aesthetically pleasing bridge and would even be willing to pay a little to have a bridge that inspires rather than stultifies but there is no method for them to do so.  Even if there was there is the remaining problem common to any public good - the free rider problem.  Few would actually give money for such an endeavor hoping that others will and they they can get the benefit for free.

Since there is no real market for aesthetics we cannot know what the optimal level of aesthetics for such a project is.  It is quite possible (perhaps likely?) that the simple deck truss is the right option for a bridge that is not in the middle of Portland.  If we had to remake the Marquam Bridge downtown I suspect there would be overwhelming sentiment for something beautiful in its place.

As for me I am not sure how much I would be willing to pay for a beautiful CRC - a little perhaps but not a lot.  The bridge is not in a place where I see it much and when I do it is for utilitarian reasons (I am driving over it).  But I would imagine that the city of Vancouver would have a much more interested population as it is going to be a permanent part of the scenery.  Which is probably why there was enough momentum to choose a reasonably beautiful design for the new Tri-Met bridge and a less than horrible design for the new Sellwood Bridge:

Modern bridges, it seems to me (knowing nothing about bridge building), require much less structure and so there are fewer opportunities for design elements to be incorporated.  I am thinking now of the Golden Gate Bridge which is beautiful in both structure and design, but the design elements are almost incidental to the structure itself.  By this I mean that you had to design the towers and the rest somehow so there were ample opportunities to add design elements and as such it was a minor part of the overall construction budget.  Without as much structure upon which to add design elements, the design of the structure itself is now pre-eminent:

Puente de Alamillo-Calatrava
Still, even when we do emphasize design we don't always get it right:

The publicly funded Portland Building

Actually, I have to admit, I still like the Portland Building - it is anything but boring and makes downtown just that much more fun and quirky.

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