Bridge building and infrastructure in the Age of Austerity

August 3, 2012: 12:04 PM ET

Architect Ted Zoli has been breaking stereotypes, causing a stir with his designs.

By Chip Lebovitz, reporter

FORTUNE -- Public opinion has soured on infrastructure projects. Slashed budgets and The Bridge to Nowhere certainly haven't helped, but Ted Zoli's projects represent a consistent bright spot in an otherwise muddied profession. The 2012 Engineering News-Record Award of Excellence winner talked to Fortune about designing bridges in the age of government austerity.

You're bridges are very economical, especially considering public works today have a habit of spiral out of control cost wise. How do you accomplish this with your works?
If we think about structural systems these days in the developed west, one thing that is very clear is designing a difficult to build bridge with the least materials is not a great strategy for cost effectiveness. There are more labor costs associated with the final construction cost of a bridge now than in any time in the past, and certainly that trend will continue.

So to me, it's being quite careful about how bridges are built and integrating the construction strategy into the design. That helps to keep projects on budget or maybe to build projects for much less.

I'm also very interested in making structural systems safer. One thing that you may find surprising but is certainly the case is that material efficiency or when you're minimizing materials, does not necessarily make the safest structural system. I'm interested in those opportunities where a structure is easier to fabricate, construct, and is safer, yet is less expensive because you're being very careful about the costs associated with its construction.

Do you think that the failure of others has led to a lack of confidence in architects and engineers for public works? If that lack of confidence does exist, how do we fix that?
I'm going to maybe argue slightly with the idea that it's maybe not a lack of confidence. What I think what we've tended to do as a culture is we've looked at public works projects like infrastructure, like bridges, as the last bit of public architecture that we have.

We're not building libraries and state buildings anymore, so the space in which we think about building iconic structures is often tied to public infrastructure. Iconic structures in many circumstances can be something that has loftier expectations and budget than something more austere, more functional as bridges have been traditionally.

For me, I'm very interested in the space where the right structural system, the right form, and the right construction method can still be iconic. It can still scratch that itch that we have I think in the need for public works projects to be a great representation of a community effort to make something better. I think often times bridges are that. It really takes a commitment on the part of a large community —sometimes cities, states, the federal government and the resources agencies. These are projects that involve many, many indeed contributions from many, many sources. It's natural to see this as a coming together and to want to achieve something important, especially for something that is a major crossing.

The downside is that in many circumstances we have built infrastructure that doesn't respect in a way the simple logic that it's taxpayer's money and we have very little of it — these days particularly. To me, it means a certain sort of austerity is necessary. Particularly in these times since 2008, it comes into focus how we have many needs and very little funds.

To some degree, over budget public works projects were tolerable when tax revenues were up. When tax revenues are down and we are really struggling to stimulate the economy and produce jobs, austerity in our design and some care that we are right sizing projects and being responsive to budgetary concerns is the call of this day.

I think we need to be an industry very creative about delivering a lot for a little.

How do you provide a lot for a little, especially considering the lack of funds at all levels of government for these public works projects?
There's a couple of different strategies, but I would say trying to understand what goes into the cost of a bridge and how can there be innovation on the fabrication process, on the erection and even the transportation of the pieces of a bridge to the site. How all those things go together is a wonderful opportunity for a designer to look at the whole cost of a public works project, try to innovate in that space, and step outside of purely the traditional role of the engineer, which is to make sure the stresses work and the structural system has adequate safety. It's instead to take a broader look at what costs money in public works projects and see if there are not ways that the designer can innovate to get at some cost savings.

Certainly some of my work has been successful with that. Some of my work I would say is an experiment and experiments are something that you learn from. I certainly have made some mistakes that I have learned from and lead me to believe that are benefits to these strategies and some cautionary tales. It's not a perfect environment but there's a richness in understanding the way a bridge gets built that gives you an opportunity to change your design. It influences the way your think about design tremendously and I try to lead with that in many circumstances.

I'm very curious about how big a piece I can ship? What kind of crane do I need to pick it up? At the fabricator shop, what technique will he use whether it's pre-cast concrete or structural steel? What techniques are cost-effective and what are not? There are a lot of opportunities for engineers to broaden their perspective about what it is they're designing and to get into looking at these other aspect of what makes a bridge cost so much.

Do you think the future of bridge building is trending toward your type of work — the economic yet aesthetically pleasing variety?
Ha-ha! I'm not so sure but it certainly has given me many opportunities to design bridges with that model and hope to have more in the future.

I would say there are many different types of projects with many different types of aspirations and maybe it's fair to say that the designer gets mapped to the right sort of opportunity.

I hope to remind people both in my industry and the public that when a bridge gets built it's with their money and they own the bridge. It's really there's. So given that it seems no one likes to pay their taxes and almost no one sees the connection between their taxes and a better life, bridges in my view are a way to reconnect that sort of trust.

Now this is sort of farfetched hope, but when people pay their taxes and they have world-class infrastructure – they have a great commute, bridge, or efficient mass transit – that they think to themselves, "My tax dollars went to something valuable." If we can connect that value, some tax dollars to great infrastructure, we would do our industry a great service and also help everyone recognize how invaluable and what the right role of government is to making our lives better.

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