Special Reports

Designer brings his New York state of mind to Narrows

NEW YORK - Engineer Joe Viola grew up around New York City and spent most of his career rehabilitating its famous bridges. Yet, for the past few years, Viola's working mind has focused on the Tacoma Narrows.

Viola's the superstructure design manager on a vast team of Parsons Corp. engineers spread up and down both U.S. coasts. He has been designing and reviewing drawings for the thousands of components that will make up the new Narrows bridge.

The designers' job has been to transform the grand vision of the 5,400-foot bridge into a set of paper instructions that guide fabricators and construction crews.

About 80 engineers in San Francisco, New York and Gig Harbor were designing the Narrows bridge when such work was at its peak, Viola estimates. Yet when the bridge is complete in 2007, few will be able to point to any single feature and claim sole responsibility for its design.

"Nothing is just because of me. Everything is because of us," Viola said. "No one person can put a set of specs and drawings together on a bridge this size."

In other words, people shouldn't seek the engineering father of the new Narrows bridge.

"It's not a father they're going to find," Viola said. "They're going to find the whole family."

Working on the Tacoma Narrows project has given the 41-year-old Viola a rare opportunity to help design a large bridge from scratch. The Tacoma span is only the second major suspension bridge built in the United States since 1973.

Before Viola joined Parsons 3 1/2 years ago, most of his previous work focused on inspecting and overseeing rehabilitation design for New York City's many bridges.

Viola estimates he has worked on at least three dozen bridges in his 20-year career. His projects included designing rehabilitation components for some of the world's best-known spans, including the Brooklyn Bridge and Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

But rehabilitation work forced him to design parts that fit almost invisibly within an existing framework.

"You're just doing bits and pieces with those," Viola said. "The overall bridge looks the same when you're done with it, whereas with new design like this, we have a clean slate to start with."

Asked to name the high point of his career, Viola points to several stacks of engineering diagrams of the Narrows bridge that bear his signature.

"This is it," he said, smiling.

Parsons engineers have worked on the Tacoma Narrows project since the 1990s, but design work grew most intense immediately after Sept. 25, 2002, when Parsons received official "notice to proceed."

Engineers began converting the span's governing principles into exact lines and dimensions. As project manager, Viola supervised 20 people working on the Tacoma project out of Parsons' New York office.

The Bridge and Tunnel Division where Viola works designed components of the bridge's trusses, deck and cable work - "the things that are hanging," he said. Most designs were completed in 12 months.

Viola estimates he made about 15 trips to Tacoma over the past 3 1/2 years to meet with officials from Tacoma Narrows Constructors, the state Department of Transportation and others with a stake in the $849 million project. The New York native had never visited Tacoma before.

Now, Viola is part of a smaller crew of designers overseeing changes requested by construction crews and the companies building the bridge's steel components. Viola's primary task is to review and approve so-called "field change requests" made as the bridge leaps from blueprint to reality.

Most of the requests appear minor - tweaks of a few inches here and there in a part's location or size. But all must be approved by the design engineers, and every change "will be documented in some manner of form," he said.

"We make sure it will not impact the design - that the design will still perform the way we want it to," he said.

Sometimes Viola and other engineers must perform complicated calculations to ensure a change won't hurt the bridge's integrity or create a dip or bump in what should be a smooth roadway.

Other requests are much simpler.

"You look at it and see that it won't have any effect," he said.

Viola enjoys engineering for "the satisfaction you get out of solving a tough problem."

He is particularly happy with their work on the bridge's two center ties, 45-foot-wide triangle-shaped steel clamps in the middle of the bridge that connect the roadway to the bridge's two massive suspension cables.

Growing up in Queens and Long Island, Viola said he seemed drawn toward engineering even as a child. When working with his contractor father and carpenter grandfather, young Joe often proposed solutions to problems or suggested ways work could be done differently.

"They kind of named me 'top engineer,'" Viola said. "It was a little gentle teasing."

He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from The Cooper Union, a small private university in New York's East Village. Along the way he married his high school sweetheart, Maryellen.

Viola earned a professional degree from Columbia University but stopped short of writing a doctoral dissertation.

"At that point I had three kids and a mortgage," Viola said.

The couple now has four children, two boys and two girls, each born roughly two years apart - a precise grouping that suggests an engineering mind. In January, the Violas will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.

On a typical day, Viola leaves his home in Massapequa Park on the south shore of Long Island and rides a train to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. He often takes his laptop computer during the hourlong train ride so he can catch up on e-mail or review bridge plans.

From Penn Station, Viola catches a subway to Parsons' office at 100 Broadway, across the street from historic Trinity Church and three blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.

Inside his office on the 18th floor, Viola can peer north to see a sliver of sky that wasn't visible when the twin towers loomed over the neighborhood.

The white walls of Viola's office are bare but for a handful of framed photographs showing bridges he helped rehabilitate. The decor is sparse - partly a mirror of the Parsons philosophy that structural design is not improved by needless adornment.

Still, when discussing the Tacoma Narrows and his work building its new bridge, Viola reveals an artist's appreciation of its surroundings. He said he enjoys driving across the existing Narrows Bridge when Mount Rainier is visible in the distance.

"I love coming in from Gig Harbor to Tacoma on a clear day and seeing that mountain in the background," Viola said. "Something about the shape of nature and the shape of the structure. It hits a chord."

Viola plans to return to Tacoma sometime after spring 2007 when the bridge is to open to the public. During a brief Tacoma vacation, Viola plans to drive across the bridge he helped design, Maryellen at his side.

"Gotta do something with all those frequent-flier miles," he said.

Facts about bridge's design

SUNDAY: Compared to the old days of bridge building, today's workers are in a different world.

MONDAY: Floating crane operator Tom Hall talks about what it's like up in his little glass box.

TUESDAY: Ironworker Todd Reising shows where bridge building, music intersect.

WEDNESDAY: How tugboat captain Kent Lowe negotiates the Narrows.

THURSDAY: Laborer Adrianne Moore is a woman in a mostly male profession.

FRIDAY: To quality-control engineer Rick Shekell, just good isn't good enough.

TODAY: In his New York office, bridge designer Joe Viola has the Tacoma Narrows on his mind.

Number of designers working on new Tacoma Narrows bridge: About 80 people when design work peaked in summer 2003

Cities where the bridge was designed: Primarily New York, San Francisco, Gig Harbor and Bellevue, with some work performed in Boston; Tallahassee, Fla.; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Ontario, Canada

Time needed to design the bridge: Roughly 100,000 hours, equal to 50 people working full-time for a year. Designing the bridge's center ties alone took roughly 2,000 hours.

Work day: Joe Viola typically worked 10-hour days last summer (not counting time spent on his computer during his morning and evening commutes).

Tools of the trade: The number-crunching analytical grunt work of bridge design was performed by three Xeon dual-processor computers dubbed the "Tacomanators." Also, a 25-foot-wide wind tunnel with full models of the existing and new bridges was used to evaluate the effects of varying wind conditions.