A working life
Structural engineer and Vice Chairman of Thornton Tomasetti Áine Brazil says her workday essentials are confidence, humility – and a sharp pencil.
My working life is a tricky balancing act between accuracy and adventure, so the thing I need most is confidence in my ability, paired with a healthy amount of humility. It’s important to get it right because public safety relies on our judgments, but you also need to be able to push the envelope to create interesting structures and meet the visions of the client and architect.
The most challenging building I’ve worked on is also my favourite: a lab for Rockefeller University on the east side of Manhattan which will open soon. It spans the FDR highway, which had to stay operational during nearly all the construction. It is 30 metres wide, which increases the chances of vibration problems, but it is filled with lab equipment, so it mustn’t vibrate. Plus, we needed to clear a certain height over the highway, and the top had to blend into an existing park.
It was assembled on the Raritan river 40 miles away, shipped by barges before several 700-ton sections were lifted into place using a barge crane on the river, which we could only move at ebb tide. But all the constraints made it exciting. I could design a building tomorrow in a vacuum but there would be no challenge in it.
My husband John and I both grew up in Ireland but he was born in the United States. He is also a structural engineer, and we thought we’d come to work here for a couple of years and then go back. That was 36 years ago. I love New York because the variety is amazing. I usually have several ongoing projects. I worked on a development at Hudson Yards at the same time as I was finishing a hospital on the Upper East Side, and then I started a university project and a new terminal at LaGuardia airport.
Without my pencil I’d be pretty lost. We have wonderful young people here who use technology with ease, but we teach them that it’s not all about computer models. You need to be able to understand, predict and visualise how a building will move, and you do that by sketching it out by hand first.
The best thing about this job is that you’re learning something new every day. You’re also contributing something to the environment that people will enjoy, that you can touch and feel, and that will hopefully be longlasting. There’s an essential satisfaction to having an impact on the skyline of a city.
Áine Brazil (MSc Civil Engineering 1980) is a chartered engineer, a fellow of Engineers Ireland and vice chair of New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti. She has also been named as one of New York’s ‘100 Most Influential Women in Business’, according to Crain’s New York Business.