Barry Brophy speaks to Salthill-born Áine Brazil, the acclaimed structural engineer who, as vice chair of New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, has led numerous projects that have shaped the famous New York skyline
Civil

I cannot imagine a harder place to build than in New York City and Áine Brazil, vice president of New York engineering firm, Thornton Tomasetti, concurred. Brazil is a fellow of Engineers Ireland won the International Engineer of the Year Award in 2014.

‘Construction is horrendously difficult and expensive in New York, even for a regular building, because of the adjacencies and the density of the urban fabric. And the age. You’re above a subway that’s 150 years old and trying to put down foundations for a 1,000-foot-tall building. And that subway has to stay running.

‘There are so few green-field sites in Manhattan – almost none. You build something on a site that is either beside, interacting with or affecting another building.’

This has not prevented Áine Brazil, who grew up in Salthill, Co Galway, from designing and constructing buildings in the clutter of Manhattan for nearly 35 years.

‘Most of the projects I’ve done recently have actually been over something. For example, a few institutions along the east side of Manhattan bought the rights, 15 or twenty years ago, to build over the FDR Drive, which is a six-lane highway. There’s no land on that side of Manhattan and the city doesn’t want them buying up residential areas to build expansions of their hospitals and universities. But it means you have to come up with a logistical way to do that, as well as just designing the final structure.

‘I frequently spend my time looking at how do we actually get stuff there, which is pretty interesting. The Hudson Yards project, for example, was over rail tracks that needed to stay active throughout the entire process, except for windows of time at night or at the weekend. So that kind of thing makes it more complex and there’s more agencies to satisfy, more oversight, more safety concerns.’

Rockefeller University project


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Áine Brazil (second from right) receives the International Engineer of the Year Award 2014 at the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards

Brazil told me about a job that Thornton Tomasetti had just finished at the Rockefeller University. ‘They needed new lab space and they wanted it contiguous with their campus along the east side of the city, so we had to build over the highway.

‘To avoid having a lot of interface on the highway, we prefabricated two-storey pieces off-site and shipped them up the river, and then lifted each one in place with a thousand-tonne crane. So, obviously, the design of those pieces has to work for both the permanent solution and the temporary conditions of construction. New York is tough that way.’

On this project, the contractor had only a five-hour window, each night, to lift the segments into place. Brazil sent me a link to an amazing time-lapse video of the operation. What is remarkable in this one-minute clip is that you can see traffic sluicing along the six-lane FDR highway as the building module is manoeuvred into place. Then, as night falls, the traffic ceases and the lift takes place, before traffic can be seen to start again at sunrise the next day.

‘Each piece weighed around 800 tonnes. The crane didn’t turn, but the whole barge it was sitting on had to. The river is tidal, so we had to do it at slack tide and it demanded great accuracy.

‘They’d start the process at around midnight or one o’clock in the morning, and would have the drive open by five o’clock, which means that any connections to the columns that sit waiting to receive the piece must be made and the module has to be stable. There were some pretty hairy situations where it opened late – not by much, just a few minutes. But the New York City Department of Transportation isn’t happy if the highway isn’t open for the morning commute. That’s the way it has to be in the city.

Brazil told me about one intriguing detail to the logistics of this operation.

‘They actually put as much as they could onto each prefabricated piece, like conduits and utilities, before putting it on the barge. Lighting, as well, built on to the bottom. The building is like a bridge over the highway and when people are transitioning from a bright sunny day and then drive underneath this thing, they actually can’t see. So, you need to have lighting to make it safe. We did all of this off-site to minimise the amount of work taking place over the highway.

‘It’s challenging and interesting, and you have to have a really strong engineering staff working with you. They have to be technically strong and practical.’

Brazil’s engineering career path


So how did Áine Brazil end up helping to re-sculpt the most famous skyline in the world?

‘I just fell into it, really. I had an aptitude for the maths and science in my early years in school [in Salerno Secondary School, Salthill], so I did civil engineering in University College Galway [now NUI Galway]. And I was lucky; I loved it. You can do a lot of things with the civil engineering degree, but my interest was on the building-design side.

‘I got a job in London with ARUP and I spent my first five years between London and Dublin. I had got a fantastic background from University College Galway, it really gave me a good grounding, but I needed a little bit more on the structural side of things so I did my master’s degree in Imperial College.

‘Then I happened to come over to New York because my husband, John, was also a structural engineer, born in the US to Irish parents. I got a job and I thought I’d stay here for two years and here I still am [laughs].

‘The breadth of interesting work that was going on was amazing to me and I got to experience such a diverse set of projects. I found it to be very, very exciting and loved it. And I liked New Yorkers; they’re a very straightforward group of people. They’re very honest, in general, and just say it like it is. I like that because that’s the way I am myself, I think.’

I asked Brazil about her education and if she would change anything.

‘The education really gave me a very solid base. What I do, now, is not something that you can actually learn in college. You have to have the base and you have to work with it. I needed to go back and do my master’s degree, but for me, going back after working for two years was the way to do it because you know what you want to learn. When you’re an undergraduate, I don’t think you can know what you need to know yet. And I’m continuing to learn every single day.’

‘What kind of things are you learning, now,’ I asked. ‘And from whom?’

‘The beauty of a company like Thornton Tomasetti, with its diversity of backgrounds and experience, is that we have a tremendous base of knowledge. When I joined, we were fifty and now we’re 1,250. So, I’m constantly going to young people – they come to me but there are things that they’ll know much better than I do.

‘On the Rockefeller University job, I went to one of the experienced people in our organisation – she has a PhD in dynamic analysis – and I had her assist me on vibration issues. In a normal lab building, you have columns every thirty feet and you don’t really have a vibration problem, but we we’re sitting over a highway and were ninety feet long, so you worry about vibrations because the equipment they use is very sensitive.’

Brazil laughed then, recalling a story about this elite university. ‘I was at an event there, just the other night, and they like to tell me they have as many Nobel prizes in science and medicine as France. And they have as many as every other institution in the United States put together.’

Breaking through the glass ceiling


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Thornton Tomasetti’s project at 10 Hudson Yards. Áine Brazil’s team is currently involved in the design of a groundbreaking skyscraper in Hudson Yards – New York’s first all-concrete commercial skyscraper (image: Thornton Tomasetti)

I guess these are the kind of clients that can afford to have their buildings span six-lane highways in one of the busiest cities on the planet. But I wanted to ask Brazil, in this competitive business environment, about another structure: the glass ceiling.

‘It has not been an issue for me, but that is not to say that it’s not an issue; I consider myself very lucky. But I’m actually quite active, right now, in finally taking a step back from my project work to try and help women to thrive. About five years ago, I realised that we weren’t really retaining all of the strong women in our firm and they weren’t progressing as well as they should. So I’m active with several different groups trying to change this paradigm for the current generation of young talented women.’

‘And have you come up with any answers?’ I asked.

‘Well, the obvious thing is the work-life balance. We’ve always been a high performing, driven company, which is good, and we do great work, but it also means that there can be tremendous pressure on deadlines, and it’s hard to have that balance.

‘But aside from that, I believe there’s a little bit of unconscious bias out there. When I tested myself on the Harvard test, even I have unconscious bias against women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths’. So, you may have the best of intentions but that’s built into the back of your brain, so you need to make a bigger effort to say, “Okay, have I treated that person in the most fair way?”’

‘So what would you say, today, to aspiring female engineers?’ I asked, ‘Even those still at school age?’

‘Oh, engineering is an amazing career, it really is. And if you’re in the building industry, like me, you can point at something and say, “That’s my building.” I mean, I don’t own it [laughs], but it’s still mine. It’s a very challenging, but very rewarding, career.

‘I live just across the Hudson river, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and as I walk to the train station in the morning, I’m looking across the river at several projects that I’ve recently designed on the west side of Manhattan. Where I’m looking, right now, they’re erecting the steel on the second major building at the Hudson Yards project, which is a 1,300-foot-tall building. I’m watching it go up. There’s something tangible about what we do. And it’s not always a high-rise building; I’ve actually had surgery in a hospital I built.

‘The founding partner of my firm said it once and I think he said it best: “You can reach out and touch your dreams.” I feel that way. I still feel excited about it.’

Áine Brazil is a chartered engineer, a fellow of Engineers Ireland and vice chair of New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, which employs over 1200 people in forty offices. Brazil, who has led projects which now shape the New York skyline, is a graduate of University College Galway and has also been named as one of New York’s ‘100 Most Influential Women in Business’, according to Crain’s New York Business. She won the award for International Engineer of the Year at the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards in 2014.

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I cannot imagine a harder place to build than in New York City and Áine Brazil, vice president of New York engineering firm, Thornton Tomasetti, concurred. Brazil is a fellow of Engineers Ireland won the International Engineer of the Year Award in 2014. ‘Construction is horrendously difficult and expensive in New York,...