Ross Bryan's New President On Structural Engineering Challenges And Being The Girl With The Tool Kit
Ross Bryan Associates, the Nashville-based structural engineer for Music City Center, the Raleigh Convention Center and a number of buildings on the UT Knoxville and Belmont University campuses, recently tapped Ibba Surface as its new president. She has been with Ross Bryan since 1979, and is the first woman to lead the 67-year-old firm.
Bisnow talked with her about the state of her profession, a largely unheralded part of the construction industry.
Bisnow: What are the main challenges facing the structural engineering business now?
Surface: Construction schedules are fast-paced, and designs can be increasingly complex, which shortens our production time. We continually need to employ new production tools and techniques to deal with accelerated schedules. Also, while not a new issue, building codes and standards are frequently revised in substantial ways. That means that at any given time, we're working on projects governed by differing codes.
Bisnow: What are some innovative technologies being used in the field?
Surface: Building Information Modeling is the industry standard now, but it continues to evolve and transform our work and product. BIM is a tool that allows the prime designer and all consultants to work on the same or integrated models, giving the client a better coordinated product and a lasting model of the building. Technology gives us more site-specific information and aids in our analysis and design. Also, improved materials and proprietary structural systems enable us to design structures that are easier and faster to build.
Bisnow: How did you become a structural engineer?
Surface: I was a math and science kid with a lot of high school friends who were guys that tinkered on things. My dad was like that, too. He was sure he could fix or rig anything, and he always wanted a helper. That was often me.
When I went to Vanderbilt, I was a girl with a tool kit, so everyone suggested I go into engineering. I studied civil engineering and took all the geotechnical and structural courses I could. My first job was in geotechnical engineering. While I’m always grateful for that experience, I quickly changed to structures and have loved the challenge of solving new problems with every project.
Bisnow: What would you recommend to young women interested in the field?
Surface: Today, young women know they can do anything. While that's a big improvement in our culture, there are still intrinsic biases and barriers, and you have to work to mitigate the effect of those. Believe in yourself and your goals. Don’t be timid about what you want and what you want to do. It’s a great profession, and if you stay with it, you will become a lifelong learner — a great quality that helps in all aspects of life.