News & Media

A Zest for Bridges: 2012 Award of Excellence Winner Theodore Zoli

by Aileen Cho (Engineering News-Record)
April 16, 2012
Photo credit: Eric Millette. A Zest for Bridges: 2012 Award of Excellence Winner Theodore Zoli Zoli designed the Mary Avenue Bridge in Cupertino, Calif., to connect bisected communities.
A Zest for Bridges: 2012 Award of Excellence Winner Theodore Zoli. Zoli designed the Mary Avenue Bridge in Cupertino, Calif., to connect bisected communities.

One recent Sunday afternoon while he was biking in New York City’s Central Park, Theodore Zoli’s cell phone rang. It was a call from James Ray, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers senior researcher with the Engineering Research and Development Center in Biloxi, Miss. Troops in Afghanistan were concerned about a bridge that had been damaged by fire. Could they safely cross it?

Ray hated to interrupt the notoriously busy Zoli on a rare day off, but he urgently needed an answer. Ray knew he had to call HNTB Corp.’s national chief bridge engineer, known for his work in making structures more resistant to blasts and fires—whether from accidents, terrorism or enemy fire.

“He sat there on the bike pathway and elaborated at length and really helped me out,” says Ray. “I have witnessed Ted on numerous occasions put what is right as the priority over any other consideration, including money. His concern for his fellow man and our country are his utmost priorities.”

In fall 2009, the New York State Dept. of Transportation (NYSDOT) had to shut down the Lake Champlain Bridge between New York and Vermont—a lifeline for two communities with no other links within 100 miles. Would it be possible to design a bridge that could be built quickly and economically while also satisfying the communities? NYSDOT officials weren’t sure—until they met Zoli.

“Ted was instrumental in our being able to communicate the message about the closure to the public,” recalls Mary Ivey, NYSDOT regional director. “He was so convincing to the [stakeholder] committee that even the historians said to me, ‘Now that we’ve heard Ted Zoli, we understand.’ ” Zoli went through input from hundreds of residents and created a half-dozen options for them to evaluate. He produced a modified network tied arch design that echoes the old bridge, yet is safer and sleeker. Inclined crisscrossing hanger cables redistribute the main span’s weight throughout, creating redundancy. The $76-million crossing opened two years later (ENR 11/7/11 p. 17). “People are thrilled,” says Ivey. “It could have been out of character or more of a signature bridge, but it’s a beautiful fit.”

Zoli’s work has been at or near the center of multiple similar scenarios: on the Mary Avenue Bridge in Cupertino, Calif. (ENR 3/9/09 p. 17); the Happy Hollow Bridge in San Jose, Calif.; the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in Omaha; the Blennerhassett Bridge in West Virginia; and the Long Island Rail Road’s (LIRR) Atlantic Avenue viaduct in New York City (ENR N.Y. 11/07/11 p. 84).

“He’s not only an engineer’s engineer, superb in the technical fields, but a Renaissance [man],” says Joe Deneault, former West Va. Dept. of Transportation chief engineer, now with Terradon Corp. “His knowledge base is so broad, and his ability to work with people and get the best out of a design team set him apart. I will not be greatly surprised if he becomes one of the giants in the history of bridgebuilding.”

For these reasons and for his consistent ability to optimize and integrate innovation with practicality as well as his tireless dedication to enhancing the safety and well-being of society in multiple aspects, Engineering News-Record has chosen Zoli as its 2012 Award of Excellence winner.

Bridging Communities

Despite frigid January weather in Portsmouth, N.H., residents came out in droves to an open house to learn about the planned new design for the movable Memorial Bridge across the Piscataqua River. The old truss bridge was an emergency closure.

Sporting a close-cropped haircut, glasses, a preppy sweater and tie, the compactly muscled Zoli looked like both an Ivy League professor and the descendent of a blue-collar contractor—and he is both. In professorial tones and layman’s terms, he patiently explained to the audience the reasons for his design of the new lift bridge. The discussion went on for hours.

The structure will be the first truss bridge in the world with no gusset plates, using uniform 65-ft metal sections spliced and reinforced by plates. Zoli used cold-bent steel—another first for bridges—and located the machine rooms under the main span.

With new generations of steel available and a better understanding of cold bending, Zoli saw these aspects of the new bridge as examples of “a very subtle departure in the way we do things, yet very big. We tend to do the same things over and over again. We should always be trying to expand upon what we know about.”

Most attendees seemed pleased by the explanations, and many praised him. But one man demanded to know why the bridge could not be more of a signature bridge. He asked, didn’t Portsmouth deserve its own version of Boston’s Zakim Bridge?

Zoli listened attentively, then described the legacy of the original movable bridge’s designer, John A.L. Waddell, and explained how the planned gray zinc coat for the new bridge would be not only the most anti-corrosive but also echo the region’s Navy shipbuilding history. But the man persisted.

“This is a bridge that is closed,” Zoli reasoned, his statements occasionally ending with an agreement-encouraging “yeah?” He pointed out the need for a new, functional, safe structure over a so-called signature one. “Taxpayers are paying my salary, and that begets a certain austerity, yeah? With no [extra] funding, embellishment would not be appropriate.”

“You’re wrong!” retorted the man. Zoli chuckled in bemused defeat and walked away. Instead of being frustrated, he said later, “I appreciate exchanges like that. He took an enormous interest in the visual quality of the project. These are public works. Public interest should be something that we recognize.”

His unflappability has impressed colleagues. “When someone vented their frustration, we had an expression: You need some Ted time,” recalls NYSDOT’s Ivey. Adds Stephen DelGrosso, Archer Western Contractors’ Memorial Bridge project manager, “Ted has made it fun to work 36-hour days, if that’s possible.”

DelGrosso also praised Zoli’s focus on constructibility—praise echoed by other contractors. The 3,000-ft-long cable-stayed Bob Kerrey bridge in Nebraska, opened ahead of schedule in 2008, features sinuous curves that evoke the Missouri River. The contractor, APAC-Kansas, was dubious that such a bridge would be cost-effective or constructible, recalls Scott Gammon, now an American Bridge Co. vice president. “When we started the kickoff meeting for the preliminary design, I stated that we would not consider building a curved cable-stayed bridge,” he recalls. “But over the next month, Ted went to work addressing each of the concerns. By the time he finished the concept, he had essentially designed away all of them.”

Gammon says the bridge sections are actually all straight but form the optical illusion of curves. Bids initially came in at $45 million, so the town of Council Bluffs, Neb., and Omaha tried again. With APAC and HNTB, they got the desired bridge at $25 million.

In New York City, the goal of the $64-million Atlantic Avenue viaduct project was more mundane: to rehabilitate a century-old, 1.5-mile section of commuter railroad while minimizing disruption to thousands of daily riders. “The preliminary design for our 199-span viaduct called for replacement of existing longitudinal girders and cap beams, while maintaining the existing bracing and column tops,” says Paul Dietlin, an LIRR program director. “The goal was to replace three spans each weekend. Over the three phases, it was anticipated that 104 [weekend] outages would be required.”

But Zoli and the design-build team of Kiewit Constructors and HNTB created an “elegant, simple” design that required only 56 weekends. Crews replaced the upper column portions and installed new bracing, eliminating multiple field splices. A continuous modular beam with disc bearings that acted as in-span hinges created greater flexibility.

Zoli’s most critical contributions to New York City aren’t as visible. After the 9/11 attacks, Zoli launched HNTB’s infrastructure security practice and developed a lightweight, blast-resistant composite material that has been applied on eight bridges (ENR 10/5/09 p. 10). “Ted has worked with agencies to determine how we can harden our structures against potential attacks,” says Paul Yarossi, HNTB president. Such work led to his selection as a 2009 MacArthur Foundation Fellows Grant recipient (ENR 10/5/09 p. 10)—the first structural engineer to win the so-called “genius” grant—and his role as an instructor for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) bridge and tunnel vulnerability workshop.

“Ted’s intervention in these sensitive research activities has done more to advance the science of bridge protection than that of any other individual,” says Steven L. Ernst, FHWA’s senior safety and security engineer. “We’re in his debt.”

Tao of Technology

Dozens of people speak not only of Zoli’s striking skills and smarts but also his enthusiasm, supportiveness and lack of ego. “He is very generous with his ideas,” says Sergei Bagrianski, a graduate student at Princeton University. “He would give his brainchild to you. His passion outranks the genius. ‘Genius’ connotes inaccessible. He makes everything accessible.”

Zoli is unselfconscious in his desire to be a good global citizen. It shows in small gestures, such as bending the perforation of an Amtrak ticket to help the conductor tear off the stub. He is a godfather several times over. Colleagues note how he always leaves his office door open for them to wander in and out at will. He displays a down-to-earth humor born of growing up as one of five grandchildren of an Italian immigrant-turned-road contractor.

Zoli grew up on construction sites in the Adirondack mountains of New York (see p. 60). His blue-collar roots, big family and childhood spent in the mountains have shaped his worldview, which seeks to balance industry and environment, always collaborate and build for the public good. He grew up embracing the process of construction.

“I ran a bulldozer when I was five,” recalls Zoli. “Dad would say, ‘Go get me that.’ He always made me feel I could do whatever it was.” That sense was enhanced by his time as a Boy Scout. “We often underimagine what kids can accomplish,” he muses. “Ultimately, our role as engineers is to instruct and mentor.”

In Robert Pirsig’s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” the narrator strives for balance between Zen-like “in the moment” romanticism and a rational approach that grasps the mechanics of the practical world. Zoli aims for this balance in his bridges, and—unlike Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s Objectivist architect whose ego fuels his structures—he believes in collaboration with no ego.

“I am informed a bit by a Buddhist mentality,” he says. He evokes the “unknown craftsmen” who for centuries produced Korean rice bowls, always with a handmade sensibility and discipline but almost “with no mind.” Those bowls evolved into the teacups used in elaborate Japanese tea rituals. “It is a sense of responsibility, not ownership—a collective work.”

Referring to the recent spate of media attention, he says, “I feel over-recognized. For me, there is a problem of overestimating the contributions of individuals. I believe there is a continuum of engineering contributions—for the many, by the many.”

There is also a continuum of a history of bridges from which to learn, Zoli believes. “Bridge failures become more precious as they become fewer,” he says. As a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, he speaks of the too-thin gusset plates and the lack of redundancy that led to the Minnesota bridge collapse in 2007 from multiple factors. “We’re missing the important lesson: The connections should not have failed. We have not come to grips yet with the intrinsic flaws in our industry. It should not be about fracture-critical but about failure-critical,” he observes.

Zoli’s passion for improving infrastructure is never long out of the picture. On the drive to Princeton, he talked about his goal to explore “the space of what can be” in design. As a rusting, decrepit-looking overpass loomed ahead on the New Jersey Turnpike, he interrupted himself to mutter, “That bridge is awful.”

Contrarian and Collaborator

As Zoli walked toward his classroom, he joked whimsically about the lack of female students during his undergraduate days at Caltech. He earned his master’s degree in civil engineering at Princeton, where he organized an “eating house”—Princeton’s version of fraternities—that he likened to “the land of misfit toys.”

Zoli has never been afraid to be the oddball. At age 14, just before the working-class adolescent was to attend prep school, he lost the tips of three fingers in an accident at his father’s concrete plant. “It probably made me a lot more serious than I would otherwise have been,” he says. “I became a bit of an outsider. Even in the bridge world, I’m a bit of a contrarian.”

That quality—combined with a preference for simple solutions over polished product and an appreciation of the messy process and the imperfections—as long as they are not dysfunctional—has not always pleased everyone. Renowned Swiss engineer Christian Menn had worked with Zoli and others on the Zakim Bridge in Boston; Menn was the conceptual designer. When asked to do the same for the Streicker Bridge at Princeton, he asked Zoli to be the engineer-of-record.

“Ted made some decisions on his own, and Menn was rightfully upset,” says David Billington, a professor emeritus at Princeton who has written books about Menn and the Swiss engineering legacy. Zoli strove to retain the striking, slender, converging geometry of the bridge, but his economics-driven engineering changes included light poles, bent and tilted I-sections for the railing, and a truss system of weathered leftover steel rather than precise sections.

Mixed campus reviews came in, with some even calling the bridge ugly. But to Zoli, “unpolished” aspects such as the rust color of the pipe trusses and the visible post-tensioning bolts in the deck are not drawbacks. “I don’t mind showing the way something was built,” he says, noting that the pipes evoke the dark, aged trunks of nearby trees. “The edges also support utilities, and we changed the truss member sizes to fit what was available. You use what you have.”

Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer involved in the designer selection process, says, “Ted has a certain innate resistance to art for art’s sake. He won’t aestheticize something, but he will enhance an intelligent solution with an elegant touch. Menn brought a level of experience and maturity and sense of aesthetics.”

Noting Zoli’s relatively young age of 46, Nordenson adds, “I think he’s still in the earlier stages of self-development.” A stronger meshing of practicality and innovation with classical aesthetics, Nordenson believes, “will emerge over time because of the clarity of his thinking and intensity of his work.”

Others see Zoli’s different perspective as part of what makes him unique. “He doesn’t follow the classic engineers—and that’s how innovation happens,” says George Deodatis, a civil engineering professor at Columbia University, where Zoli is an adjunct professor. “Ted is in the inspirational phase. I’ve discussed with him new ideas and forms and new materials—it’s a period in time [similar to] the iron and steel revolutions. Ted is at the forefront of this revolution.”

One of the new materials is black locust wood, the main component of Zoli’s 400-ft-long Squibb Park footbridge in Brooklyn. Curving between trees and buildings and over streets, the bridge will use the wood as a durable, eco-friendly, context-sensitive material and connect with a new park designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.

Zoli also is exploring new materials in the name of public good using the five-year MacArthur grant of $500,000. His three projects involve disaster-relief structures: lightweight shelter roofs, extensions to temporary bridges and, in Morocco, a 175-ft-long synthetic rope bridge to be built this year. The goal is to build post-disaster structures quickly, with easily transported materials. Columbia University students will build the bridge as part of Engineers Without Borders.

Zoli’s embrace of non-conventional projects “is the hallmark of a game-changer,” adds Nina-Marie Lister, a planner and adviser to Animal Road Crossing, a coalition that held an international competition in 2010 to design an innovative wildlife crossing at Colorado’s West Vail Pass along I-70. Potential jurors needed to be collaborative and to truly appreciate the problem.

She wanted Zoli to be a juror, but he wanted to compete. An HNTB team led by Zoli, working with Van Valkenburgh, won. “Ted is fluent in fields that are outside of his own,” says Van Valkenburgh. “He understands landscape architecture, he gets design, and he is knowledgeable about ecology.”

Zoli was again motivated by a Buddhist sense of nature, honed further by his visits to his surrogate family in Taiwan, combined with the desire to solve a practical problem. He notes that wildlife highway accidents cost $8 billion a year in claims and injuries to humans and bemoans animal deaths. “As drivers, we lost sensitivity to the fact that animals belong in these areas. We got into the idea that this was OK,” he says.

Never has the newlywed been busier. “I once sat next to Ted on a flight to San Diego from Newark,” recalls Van Valkenburgh. “I am a bit of a workaholic, but he did so much work on this flight that I felt exhausted just sitting next to him!” Things might only get more intense: Zoli and HNTB are now on one of the teams vying for the Tappan Zee Bridge rehabilitation. “What I appreciate most about his maturation is, he’s finally figured out how to empty his voice mail on his cell phone,” jokes David Goodyear, senior vice president with team member T.Y. Lin International.

Through it all, Zoli keeps calm. Retaining a clarity of vision for every bridge solution, to him, is summed up in the Chinese scroll that hangs in his office. A gift from his executive assistant’s father in Taiwan, he treasures it for that imperfection of smudges left by the brushstrokes and its message: “Thoughts not twisty.”