A New Form of Sidewalk Bridge

by Don Friedman on September 18, 2017


First, some terminology: the platforms that move up and down on cables are hanging scaffold (AKA swing-stages); the tall temporary constructions of pipe and metal frames that allow access to a facade are standing scaffold (AKA pipe scaffold); the sheds that protect people on the sidewalk from falling tools and debris are sidewalk bridges (AKA sidewalk sheds). For various deservedly-obscure reasons, a sidewalk bridge is not a “scaffold.” The picture above, from 1936, shows the Broad Street facade of the New York Stock Exchange with standing scaffolding sitting on top of a sidewalk bridge.

Sidewalk bridges are common because repair work on facades is common. While any individual building could put up something better looking than the standard shed, it’s rare. A competition run by the New York City government and the local chapter of the AIA in 2009 led to a vaguely gothic winner. A few years later, the New York Building Congress held a similar competition that had four winners. People seem to want something better-looking than the standard bridge, but we’re stuck. There are two basic issues: there are a lot of variations in geometry (sidewalk width, slope versus level, height of the bridge, getting around trees and other obstructions) and the current scheme, which is built up of individual posts, beams, and planks, is both flexible and cheap.

The 2009 winner is back, having “spent the following years perfecting the scaffolding system in Toronto.” (And you thought out-of-town openings were just for Broadway musicals.) The cost has come down, although it’s still higher than ordinary sheds. We’ll see if good looks make up for the cost differential. People hate regular bridges, so a few savvy building owners might try the new option. It doesn’t take much to create a trend.

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