Some of Ted Zoli’s bridges are showpieces.
There’s the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which forms a gentle S as it crosses the Missouri River, its 200-foot towers piercing the Midwestern sky.
The Zakim Bridge rises dramatically above Boston’s Charles River, its gleaming cables forming wiry triangles that look like something out of a science-fiction movie.
Closer to home, consider the Lake Champlain Bridge, with its singular, stately arch providing passage between New York and Vermont.
But Zoli, a Glens Falls native considered one of the leading designers of cable-stayed bridges, which consist of a roadway deck suspended from cables that are anchored to towers, said his less-heralded bridges reveal more about him.
“If you want to see what I’m all about, visit the Atlantic Avenue Viaduct,” Zoli said. “That’s just as good a work, but it won’t get the same recognition.”
The rehabilitation of the Atlantic Avenue Viaduct, an elevated railway in Brooklyn, doesn’t inspire awe. It isn’t pretty or particularly noticeable. But it did come in under budget and ahead of schedule, which Zoli believes is even more important than physical appearance.
“What I do every day is spend taxpayers’ money to build public works,” Zoli said. “It’s crucial that these are works of great value. … You can get lost in the design and the aesthetics, but what a project ultimately comes down to is that it’s got to be good value.”
Zoli serves as vice president and national bridge chief engineer for HNTB Corp., an architectural, civil engineering consulting and construction management firm with a transportation focus. He has worked out of the company’s New York City office for 22 years. He is married, and the couple is expecting their first child.
In an interview last week, Zoli said he prefers to remain in the background.
“If you have to think about engineers, it’s usually because something’s wrong,” Zoli said.
Engineers are different from architects, who aspire to build structures of lasting significance and artistry.
“The goal in engineering is to be part of the fabric of civilization and not necessarily all that noticed,” he said. “My hope with the Lake Champlain Bridge is that it looks like it belongs there and that in 10 or 20 years I’m forgotten.”
But in recent years, Zoli’s renown has only grown.
In April, Zoli received one of the construction industry’s most prestigious honors: the weekly magazine Engineering News-Record’s Award of Excellence for 2012. At the time, the magazine said that he won the award because “he solves urgent bridge dilemmas around the world, making them safer while optimizing innovation, practicality and society’s well-being.”
In 2009 Zoli became the first in his field to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellowship, and in 2010, he was the subject of an Esquire magazine profile that described him as “the engineer of the moment. … The engineer of this moment must find his satisfaction inside his small solutions, in rebuilding and retrofitting what came before, and retooling the ancient precepts of his profession in order to save money, to build more, to use less.”
The 46-year-old Zoli said he wanted to be an engineer from an early age.
His grandfather’s road building business, Torrington Construction, built the Adirondack Northway, and he began hanging around and working at the company as a child.
“My earliest memories are of being around heavy construction equipment,” Zoli said. “By high school, I was convinced that I wanted to study engineering. I wanted to understand more about why we built the things we built.”
Bridges are “expressive,” he said, in a way that other buildings and infrastructure are not, because their basic structure is hidden.
At 14, Zoli lost the tips of three fingers right down to the knuckle when he slipped while checking a generator that was running hot at a sand and stone plant in Lake George. The accident happened shortly before Zoli departed for the Hotchkiss School, an exclusive prep school in Connecticut, and left him struggling to tie his shoes and button the dress shirts he was required to wear. But he views the accident as a good experience, because it made him a more focused and serious child, more intent on studying and doing well in school.
“That’s something that impacts your life quite a bit when you’re relatively young,” Zoli said. “There’s something about an experience like that that makes you think, ‘I don’t have so much time.’ ”
There were some downsides, too.
“I was learning to play banjo at the time,” he recalled. “The accident ended my banjo career. I used to rock climb; I couldn’t really do that any more.”
From Hotchkiss, Zoli went to Princeton University for his bachelor’s degree and then to the California Institute of Technology for his master’s. From California, he returned to New York, where he ran a foundation company owned by Torrington for about six months. Then he moved to New York City to work for HNTB.
Zoli’s father took over Torrington Construction and turned it into a ready-mix concrete business. He intended for Zoli and his two brothers to eventually run the company, but an attempt to remake the company, with Zoli adding a design element to it, didn’t work out and Torrington was shut down in the late 1990s.
Zoli said designing the Lake Champlain Bridge was a way to give back to the remote region where he grew up.
“There are not a lot of bridges of that magnitude where I grew up,” he said. “It’s a pretty underserved part of the country. People don’t have a lot, and they don’t ask for a lot. … I hope that the bridge lives up to what a beautiful crossing that is.”
The bridge, which connects Crown Point, N.Y., with Addison, Vt., provides the only link between the two states for a number of people living on or near Lake Champlain. After the original bridge was condemned and closed in 2009 due to cracks and deterioration, those people were forced to drive 85 miles to Whitehall or north to the Canadian border to cross into Vermont — a real hardship, because many commute to the neighboring state for work. Eventually a temporary, 24-hour ferry service was set up, but residents were overjoyed when the new bridge opened in late 2011, according to Crown Point town Supervisor Charles Harrington.
“That bridge is a good fit with the surroundings, with the mountains and lake,” Harrington said. “It’s very complementary.”
The new bridge recalls the old bridge’s truss design but adds pedestrian and bike paths. “The old bridge was not a safe environment for bikers or walkers,” Harrington said. “Now there are always people walking the bridge, whether it’s early in the morning or late at night.”
He described the period without a bridge as “a trying time. It was like a ghost town here when the bridge closed.”
John Grady, the state Department of Transportation’s construction manager for Region 1, which includes the Lake Champlain Bridge, described Zoli as “a great guy to work with. He’s full of energy — unending energy. I don’t know how he does it.”
On the Lake Champlain Bridge project, “I think his ties to the area helped. The folks in the Champlain area warmed up to him. I think they saw him as a North Country guy.”
In addition to growing up in the area, Zoli attended summer camp on Lake Champlain, Grady said.
The Lake Champlain Bridge was built quickly — in about 16 months. Grady said the arch was built off-site, while the rest of the structure was under construction, and then transported and installed. The bridge is made of interchangeable parts, so if one part becomes deficient, it can be replaced without taking down the whole structure or a large section of it.
With his MacArthur award money, Zoli is working on several different bridge projects, all with a focus on helping poor, rural people.
“The only thing I know how to do is build bridges,” Zoli explained.
Using synthetic rope, he is developing lightweight, portable bridges that can be carried in packs to remote areas, and set up much more easily than a traditional bridge. The first bridge, which has a 200-foot span and weighs less than 600 pounds, will be deployed in Morocco, through a collaboration with the group Engineers Without Borders.
“With many rural areas, it’s hard to get construction materials to them,” Zoli said. “Hopefully I can get the [synthetic rope bridge] down to four or five backpacks.”
Zoli is also developing lightweight, temporary housing that can be set up easily and quickly in disaster areas such as Haiti. These structures will be similar to modular housing, comprising 50-pound walls and roofs that can be organized in stacks “like Pringles” and “snapped together” to create a shelter that’s harder and more durable than the tents that have traditionally served as emergency housing for displaced people.
Zoli is also developing temporary bridges that can be set up in emergencies and will only last for a short period of time — maybe 10 years.
In addition to his MacArthur projects, Zoli collaborates with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and although he can’t reveal too many details about what he’s working on for the agency, he said he’s trying to find ways to make structures harder, more able to tolerate damage and resist fires and blasts.
“We all live in the aftermath of Sept. 11,” he said.