Looking for innovation in new places
HNTB’s National Chief Bridge engineer Ted Zoli is as well known as his bridges are. He has designed some of the most iconic bridges of our time: the cable-stayed Leonard P. Zakim Bunkerhill Bridge in Boston; the Lake Champlain Bridge between New York and Vermont; and the Memorial Bridge replacement over the Piscataqua River that links Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Kittery, Maine. That bridge was the first in the world to employ a gussetless truss design.
Zoli is the first structural engineer to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, lauded for “leading the design of elegant and enduring bridges around the world and making major technological advances to protect transportation infrastructure in the event of natural and man-made disasters.”
Zoli will speak at the 64th Maine Transportation Conference on Finding Innovation in New Places. Before the conference, Maine Trails spoke with him about bridges, meeting the challenges of tight funding with innovation and why he doesn’t particularly feel like a “genius.”
Maine Trails: Why did you choose to design bridges?
Ted Zoli: My father and my grandfather owned a construction company and built the Northway [I-87] from Albany into the Adirondack Mountains. I literally grew up on that job. I became interested in how infrastructure underpins a place and becomes intrinsic to what that place becomes.
Maine Trails: You have called for “new ways of thinking” about infrastructure. What’s wrong with our old thinking?
Ted Zoli: As engineers, we have had a little bit of a blind spot when it comes to designing infrasengineers, we have had a little bit of a blind spot when it comes designing infrastructure. We always seem to focus and teach about optimizing materials in our practice. I think we need to look at where to innovate, where there’s value to innovate. When you look at a bridge, how we make and install the concrete and steel may not seem very sexy, but in terms of cost, it is the greatest part of the project.
For the Memorial Bridge, we looked at the design of the truss and developed an entirely new fabrication that was safer and easier to install, inspect and repair and is actually heavier than a traditional truss. So our design had 30 percent more concrete and steel in it, and we still won the bid.
Maine Trails: How does it feel to get one of the coveted MacArthur “genius” grants? Do you feel like a genius?
Ted Zoli: I’m a little distrustful of notoriety. Engineering is a team sport, and I am surrounded by many very talented people who work very hard. The fact is, the really heroic part of engineering is anonymous. When we build a bridge, it’s in a challenging environment with lots of complications. So we build successively on the work that has been done before us to get to this remarkable systemic solution to the problem.