By Chad Clinehens
This month we celebrate bridges, one of the most transformative engineering marvels of all time. From iconic bridges like the Golden Gate bridge to the municipal bridge that cuts your commute in half, bridges are a powerful creator of opportunity. Bridges connect people, communities, and economies, creating possibilities out of impossibilities. But a bridge is more than just spans of pavement across a chasm, a bridge as a metaphor is about connecting through communication, bringing people together on an issue or idea, and helping us get to a destination.
As a civil engineering student, structural and bridge design courses were the most challenging for me. Ironically, I went to work for an engineering firm whose founder was the first bridge engineer for the state of Arkansas, Neal Garver, and where bridge design had evolved into major specialty of the firm. Although I never was on the bridge design team, I worked close enough with them on my transportation projects that I could confirm, bridge design is in fact, at the upper end of the engineering design difficulty index. The reward of the long hours of complex design, however, is extraordinary. One of our iconic projects was the “Big Dam Bridge” over the Arkansas River. At 4,226 feet in length it was, and I believe still is, the longest pedestrian/bicycle bridge in the world designed and built for that purpose. In other words, the longest pedestrian bridge that has never been used by trains or motor vehicles. When this bridge opened in 2006, it transformed the cycling community as well as fueled a culture of outdoor fitness that has benefited many thousands of people as it connected two communities and over 7,000 acres of parks. For me, it was something that I got great joy out of using on a regular basis as an avid cyclist. My quality of life, along with many others, was positively impacted by this project. It also confirmed why I love civil engineering. To be a part of a firm that designed something that extraordinary and be able to use it every day and see it impact an entire community was extremely rewarding. Part of what made it possible is that the span across the river utilized the existing and still active, Murray Lock and Dam. That is also what made the design more complex. Another example where challenging design leads to an awesome result.
The complexity of bridge design is not just for infrastructure, it also applies to the metaphoric use of the word “bridge”. The next chapter of my career involved my joining Zweig Group eight years ago. Since then, I’ve been working with engineering firms to help them perform better and solve the issues that hold them back – a different kind of bridge building. The difficulty in bridging communication and bringing people together on an idea or issue is also far more difficult than I ever imagined. It’s why the big issues of our world like racism, gender inequity, and other social injustices continue today. Although we’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way to go. Our mission, to elevate the industry, aims to not only help firms elevate their performance, but also to help the industry in some of the bigger issues, like solving the recruiting and retention challenge. One of the essential aspects of the mission is to share the stories. Stories like “Emily Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge” featured in this issue remind us why the pillars of our mission – Promote, Diversify, Educate, Change, and Celebrate – are so important. This story hits so many of them as it inspires us to think big about this profession and to realize we can accomplish anything when we are open to it. To the civil and structural engineers of our past, present, and future – all of you transform our world every day. Your work truly elevates our industry.
Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.