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Pride and Practice: Elevating the AEC Industry

Pride and Practice: Elevating the AEC Industry

Bobby Hopper tunnel at Interstate 49, Winslow, Arkansas.

By Chad Clinehens

In 1999 I was nearing graduation.  While I was searching for where I would start my first full-time job in the AEC industry (as an engineering intern), I traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to interview for an opportunity to work with the transportation team of an Arkansas-based engineering firm.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this is the firm where I would ultimately start and spend the majority of my career to this point.

On my journey to pursue this opportunity, I left my college town of Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas and traveled to Little Rock via interstate-540, now I-49.  This 40-mile stretch of interstate bypassed US-71, which was once known as one of America’s most dangerous highways.  The opening of I-49 was a huge event for the people in Northwest Arkansas; it drastically improved the region’s accessibility to its south by connecting it to I-40, a major east-west interstate in the United States.  Perhaps more important than accessibility, this stretch of interstate highway drastically improved the safety of Northwest Arkansas’ rapidly growing population at the time.

On my travels to Little Rock on that day in 1999,  my car passed through the confines of the Bobby Hopper Tunnel–my first time ever driving through a highway tunnel.  This is the first and only interstate tunnel in the state of Arkansas, and consists of two bores at 1,595 feet long, 38 feet wide, and 25 feet tall.  Admittedly, although this was certainly my first time driving through the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, it was not my first time seeing it.  Some time before, as a part of a tour group with the Arkansas Society of Professional Engineers, I had the opportunity to visit and tour the tunnel, which was then around 40 percent completed.  

Of all the things that color my experience that day, I remember there being tons and tons of mud.  Getting access to the site was extremely difficult, but once we got there it was a fascinating experience.  The tunnels were mined, not bored, through the 1,800-foot high mountain.  The sounds of blasting, drilling, and the excavation of native shale and sandstone rocks filled my ears.  Alas, this memory exists in a time before cell phones, so the only reminders left to me are the memories of the tunnel that day.  And, driving to the potential start to my engineering career, I took pride in the fact that I was interviewing with the very firm who had produced the feasibility study for this immense project way back when I-49 was still just  a conceptual plan.  My visit to the Bobby Hopper Tunnel stoked my fascination with tall bridges and tunnels, and, knowing these projects take years and often decades to finish, I was proud and excited to begin working on projects of this scale and magnitude–projects that define the future outcomes for places and people.

Now, with decades of experience in the AEC industry–from building sites to boardrooms–I can reflect on the poetry of that moment in 1999, and what lessons can be gleaned from the wisdom of hindsight.  As I left Fayetteville, rising quickly and traversing some of the tallest interstate bridges west of the Mississippi River, I had the swirling ambitions of any passionate young professional, but in the moments when my car passed through that interstate tunnel, these ambitions seemed to solidify.  I was struck by my immense pride in stepping into an industry that so concretely drives people and places forward.  I could feel the culmination of those ten years of work from civil and structural engineers, along with geologists, surveyors, and contractors represented in my physical progress to a budding career.  I wanted to be a part of that larger feeling of pride and accomplishment.

For me, reflecting on this moment in time, now decades past, reminds me of the weight of the work undertaken by our vital industry.  For communities, towns, neighborhoods, cities, regions, and everything in between–across the globe–improvements and innovations to the built environment represent substantial positive change in human lives.  We have a tremendous duty to serve the populations in which we work, and we should take immense pride in our role as drivers of change.  Extending my experience on that day in 1999 to the subsequent years that followed, I have learned that, for AEC firms to most effectively execute their work, this sense of pride must be a central and defining feature of their operations.  Notably, this pride means having courage to engage in processes of self-examination, to be constantly searching for new ways to innovate, and to always be looking for ways to include more voices in the conversation.

At Zweig Group, we are committed to this sense of pride through our commitment to Elevate the Industry.  Through our different service areas, we are committed to supporting AEC firms along their journey to building a better future around us.  I can’t help but think about projects like the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, which ushered in a new era of safety and accessibility for Northwest Arkansas, and what that work meant for the future of a growing region.  With all this in mind, what such a project meant for so many people, but what it meant for my mom was that she could sleep better at night knowing the many trips on I-49, that started with that job interview, would be safer and easier.