A brush with greatness

Bridges Article December 28, 2000
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Not a single Gene Figg Jr


Not a single Gene Figg Jr., P.E., bridge design has called for the use of balsa wood. The first could be on the horizon. After all, the Charleston, S.C., native is feeling awfully young these days.


"I’m not stopping, I have no thoughts of retiring," he told ROADS & BRIDGES. "I don’t go to work, I come to have fun."


Back in the day, Figg found amusement building small models . . . sometimes starting with nothing but a block of balsa wood. Ships and planes were constructed, but he never got around to erecting a bridge. With the creative energy still abundant, the opportunity to jumpstart a hobby to fill a void is always there.


Figg, however, is doing just fine with the "art" supplies he uses as a professional engineer today.


"It’s all about creating bridges as art, that’s what we’re really trying to do," said Figg, who started Figg and Muller Engineers in Tallahassee, Fla., back in 1978. Figg became sole owner of the firm in 1988, creating Figg Engineering Group."If our bridge is in harmony with its site and we’ve done a good job of engineering then we think we’re creating art."


Art which is on display nationwide. His bridges have appeared on the likes of Rand McNally covers and Buick car ads, and also have served as backdrops for the television news. Figg Engineering Group has won 132 bridge awards over the past 22 years, including three of the five Presidential Awards claimed by bridges since 1984. The accomplishments continued to roll in at the International Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh on June 12, where the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania, in association with ROADS & BRIDGES, presented Figg with the John A. Roebling Medal for Lifetime Achievement.


Two sets of footsteps


Figg’s building adrenaline rush really kicked in during his senior year of high school, when he decided to follow his father in the civil engineering field.


"I like to solve problems, but I wasn’t real good at reading a lot of stuff," he said.


Gene Figg Sr. took civil engineering at the Citadel, but settled into a career in the Navy. The younger Figg took the same path through college, graduating from the Citadel in 1958, and his choice of work also took a turn when he decided to concentrate on the design of bridges.


After graduating, Figg attended a three-year bridge design training program with the Florida Department of Transportation, where he found a mentor in Bill Dean. Dean was the chief bridge engineer with FDOT, and many considered him the "father of prestressed concrete in America."


Six years of working alongside Dean led Figg to start a firm with two associates called Barrett, Daffin and Figg in Tallahassee.


"I learned more about the business of being a consulting engineer and how to run a business," recalled Figg. "I learned the business side and I learned client relations."


Figg became very involved in the profession, handling a variety of structural work, but he was still short on satisfaction.


That hole was filled when he founded Figg Engineering Group, a company where bridgework is exclusive.


"We’ve worked in 30 states and in four countries in South America," said Figg. "It’s diversified."


The move came without the typical start-up struggle. Four Florida projects–the Long Key Bridge, 7-Mile Bridge, Niles Channel and Channel No. 5–were transferred over from Barrett, Daffin and Figg. "That gave us the basis to get started."


After those jobs were completed in 1982, Figg Engineering Group made its own mark with the Linn Cove Viaduct, Grandfather Mountain, N.C. The project won the firm’s first Presidential Award in 1984.


The public’s eye


Figg Engineering Group can turn swinging cranes into brush strokes, with all of North America serving as its canvass. The philosophy, however, is contractor-friendly . . . it’s the economical choice. This is where the Federal Highway Administration’s requirement for competitive designs when dealing with federally funded projects plays to Figg’s strength.


"It’s where we really got started because we were able to convince the customers to give us a chance. We were successful many, many times."


But perhaps the most unique part of the Figg strategy is public involvement.


"One of the important activities to us is dealing with the public and designing bridges that the public wants," said Figg. "We’re convinced that the bridge tells you what the public thinks of itself."


A perfect reflection of the logic comes from the Maumee River Bridge in Toledo, Ohio. The public chooses a theme for each involvement session, in this case it was glass, and participates by being given choices for different parts of the bridge.


The final design decisions are ranked on a 1-10 scale. One of the preferences the public was allowed to decide on was whether there would be two or four sides of glass on the pylon. Figg calculated an 8.6 preference for a four-sided glass pylon and a 3.4 for a two-sided one. The firm tries to integrate every preference above 5 into the final design.


After the public votes, alternate designs are created and another session and committee approves the final plan. In the case of the Maumee Bridge, the public approved a rectilinear over a curvilinear design. Bids on the precast segmental bridge will be taken in February.


"They wanted this bridge to be a world-class design, and that when you see it you realize it’s in Toledo," said Figg. "All preferences are in the budget, we don’t do anything outside the budget. We also only offer things that have been approved by the owner."


Priceless pieces


Figg’s gallery is filled with unique and striking work, but ROADS & BRIDGES selected five as landmarks.


The Linn Cove Viaduct, Grandfather Mountain, N.C.


The Presidential Award winner was the missing link of the Blue Ridge Parkway and a protector of the environment.


Hugh Mortin owned Grandfather Mountain and endorsed designs for the bridge, which was built from the top so as not to disturb the fragile region. The only trees removed were ones sitting in spots every 180 ft where piers needed to be constructed.


"We built the bridge around the mountain, and came as close as two feet to the boulders," said Figg. "It’s the only bridge in America that’s been built totally from the top."


James Burrows Edwards Bridge, Charleston/Mt. Pleasant, S.C.


This bridge is a sentimental favorite of Figg’s because it was built in his hometown. It has a 400-ft span which was built with the use of temporary piers. The temporary piers were precast boxes, post-tensioned and reached heights of 100 ft. Some were re-used on other spots of the bridge to avoid waste, making it economical.


"The contractor could build 100 ft in a day of those piers. It’s a very quick way to do construction."


Figg claims to be the only company utilizing precast box piers on bridges that are built.


Hanging Lake Viaduct, Glenwood Canyon, Colo.


The last of nine Figg bridges constructed in the canyon, the Hanging Lake Viaduct fit right into Figg’s specialty, which is the ability to blend the bridge into the environment.


The concrete is colored to match the stone, and horizontal lines are etched across the piers to make them look shorter. Also, the piers aren’t wider than the superstructure, which "makes it look like the whole thing fits together."


The project was finished five months ahead of schedule, and like the Linn Cove Viaduct was built from the top to protect the sensitive environment below.


"That was just a great job because we actually worked in Glenwood Canyon for 10 years," said Figg. "It gave us a chance to continue what we like to do, and the reason we fit so well in the canyon was because they wanted the type of aesthetics that we could bring."


One of the sections had to be constructed directly over traffic. Supports on the outside edges of the road held the superstructure above, and when traffic was moved up top the contractor constructed permanent piers underneath.


"The contractor only stopped traffic for 20 to 30 minutes every time they put in a new bearing."


Natchez Trace Parkway Arches, near Nashville, Tenn.


Figg created arches with "movement" by designing a superstructure with variable depths and widths.


"What we wanted to do is make this look very interesting."


The latest Presidential Award winner (1995) does not have any verticals in the arches. The principal arch span is 582 ft long and has a 137 ft vertical clearance above Tennessee Route 96.


"You could save a little money putting verticals underneath the superstructure and attaching it to the arch, but we eliminated that."


Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Tampa Bay, Fla.


Tragedy brought this design to life. A ship hit the existing bridge, and authorities wanted to move fast to put the incident behind them. Figg was only given 11 months to design the structure, which has a 1,200-ft precast span. To this day it is still the longest precast segmental cable-stayed bridge in the U.S., and was the recipient of the Presidential Award in 1988.


"What stands out in my mind is the acceptance of the bridge. It’s a toll bridge and a tourist attraction."


Vertical is on the horizon


As far as the future of the nation’s highways goes, there could be some serious build up. Figg is involved in a unique project right now with the Tampa/Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. The $100-million job involves building vertical from the median in an attempt to add more lanes.


"This is the future in America for expanding our roadway system," said Figg.


The piers will be precast and installed in the median. The precast segmental structure also will have a precast box and 140-ft spans stretching 6 1/2 miles.


The route, which leads the town of Brandon into Tampa, currently consists of four lanes at ground level. The project will add three one-way lanes. The flow of traffic will be reversed during the p.m. rush hour.


Construction will be rapid. Figg estimates an average of two spans will be built per week with one set of erection trusses.


"This is going to be the model for most of our problems we have with the interstate, because we have the median but we can’t go horizontal in these areas. This could be a model for the world," added Figg.


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