Tell me about the most challenging engineering project you have been involved with in the recent past.
One of the most challenging projects I recently completed was the construction of what we called the Coastal Studies Outpost at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve (SARI) in the Virgin Islands. The project was design-build for a new building, a wet-lab, for park staff and other researchers to use to study the marine and coastal environment. The project was challenging due to its remote location, not just in the Virgin Islands, but being located down an unimproved dirt road (which floods semi-regularly). The wet lab is completely off the grid, gathering power from solar panels and water from a cistern system. The park staff and I worked diligently as a team during design to ensure the lab would be functional for natural and cultural resource, as well as the maintenance staff. Through many conversations, we were able to find the right balance between the various needs.
Construction of the lab presented several challenges. The first was the cultural differences between the prime contractor from the United States and local island sub-contractor. This presented itself in forms of communication, what "right now" means (i.e. in island time that could be a few hours or even days). We also regularly reminded the local crew to wear their personal protective equipment, like safety glasses, as these are often viewed more as a suggestion than a requirement among the locals. Given the contract strategy of design-build, there was a lot of effort put in to maintain constant communication and fluidity, in order to keep the project moving along. In many ways, it seemed no construction decision was final until it was built.
What checks and balances do you use to make sure your project meets Park Service's needs while staying within available funding and specified time frames?
I am a big fan of documentation. One of the tools I use is that I create basic project schedules in a spreadsheet. I share that schedule with my main point of contact at the park to help keep everyone accountable. I make sure to provide time for at least two to three revisions to the statements of work. I found this greatly keeps projects on schedule.
I also start out each project by completing my own cost estimate of the project after my initial scoping conversation with park staff to see if the requested funds are in the correct order of magnitude. As the scope inherently becomes better defined, I continue to update the cost estimate so I can confirm the project is estimated within available funds.
In our branch, we also use project agreements. The agreements lay out basic responsibilities for each project, how they are divided between the park and regional office, noting basic timelines, and any special considerations for the project. It even includes a timeframe for compliance to ensure it doesn't fall between the cracks.
What are you doing to stay current with the latest technology?
I read a lot of articles and participate in trainings/webinars when possible to stay aware of how construction technology is changing. The American Society of Civil Engineers sends out a daily 'SmartBrief' that covers new technology, along with major construction projects across the Nation, and sustainability news as well. I also subscribe to The Military Engineer magazine published by the Society of American Military Engineers. When possible, I attend in-person training where I can discuss new technology with other engineers and visit booths of equipment suppliers to see what new technology is available.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I spend the first part of the day planning, looking over my weekly notes/to-do list and prioritizing which items need to be done that day. I make a few phone calls or send emails to remind parks and contractors what information I need from them and by when (I found early on that anything without a deadline doesn't get done). I then start updating construction documents based on the feedback I've received from the team. I average at least one conference call each day. The rest of the day is spent identifying and planning for potential issues that could arise in each project. Sometimes this planning allows me to prevent issues by being proactive, and other times it helps by having a plan in place for the 'what-ifs' of construction, ultimately streamlining getting a project back on track.
I try to complete on-line training on a regular, though not daily basis. The goal is to do a course every two weeks. This has been critical to staying up to date with COR, P/PM, and professional engineer continuous learning requirements.
What do you enjoy most about your job as an engineer?
I enjoy problem solving and asking, "but why?" the most because of the brainstorming process that follows. Each park and project are so unique, that they present their own problems to be solved. Figuring out not just 'a' solution, but the 'optimal' solution is enjoyable for me. Maintaining the status quo is not always the best path forward. Asking stakeholders why they want to follow one plan, often leads to a pause and consider moment, followed by later development of a more optimal solution.
As part of this curiosity of mine, I am pursuing my master's degree in sustainability management. I am roughly half-way through the program, learning about how to sustain life into the future. Finding the parallels between sustainability and the mission of the NPS is truly fascinating to me. Consider, the NPS mission involves protecting and preserving natural and cultural resources unimpaired for visitors to enjoy today and into the future, while sustainability is commonly defined as 'providing for the needs of the current generation without impairing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.' Both include taking care of resources today so they can sustain life and be enjoyed into the future.