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Five Questions for an Engineer – Peter Mulqueen

Peter Mulqueen, of Novare Design, designed the iconic Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, located near New Plymouth, in New Zealand. (Thanks Peter for agreeing to the interview!)

From Close 2 Home

After growing up in the swede paddocks of Balfour, he spent two years as a drafting cadet with the Lands and Survey Department. At 20, he was a late starter at Canterbury University where, in 1988, he gained a Bachelor of Engineering with first class honours. He stayed on to do his masters degree, then worked in Invercargill for a consulting firm before heading to Switzerland in 1990.

In Zurich he worked for Electrowatt Engineering Services, a daughter company of Credit Swiss, (one of the major banks, which financed the first Gothard Railway Tunnel under the Swiss Alps) that has had a long history of financing significant engineering projects. He came home, achieved an MBA, then worked inWellington, Christchurch and Invercargill. For several years he travelled to and from Switzerland.

In 2001 he moved to Zurich and began working for the legendary Santiago Calatrava.

“To call him legendary, in this circumstance, is not wrong,” Mulqueen says. “I’d heard about him. He’d designed the famous Stadelhofen station in Zurich. They were advertising and I applied and had a job.

Calatrava employed 35 staff there, about 40 in Valencia and two or three in Paris at the time. I thought there was a remote chance of getting the job. Everyone was young and worked hard. The fact is I know him quite well. He’s the star architect when it comes to bridges.” From 2002 to 2006, Mulqueen worked for Calatrava on a number of designs, including the James Joyce bridge in Dublin and the Bridge of Strings in Jerusalem, (which caused much controversy because it was so unusual), the preliminary design of the National Photography Museum of Qatar, the new entry hall to the New York Metro at Ground Zero, and the turning torso tower in Malmo, Sweden, the largest skyscraper in Scandinavia. Track them on Google for a fascinating journey through some modern engineering marvels.

Today, Mulqueen is working on four railway bridges, with all-steel ballast decks, a first of a kind in this country, made of weathering steel which rusts but doesn’t flake off and instead becomes tightly adhered to the parent metal. “They’re heavy, robust bridges,” he says with a real sigh. “It’s hard to make them look elegant but nevertheless they fascinate me all the same.”

The Happy Pontist has a number of posts on the Te Rewa Rewa bridge here and here.

Recent Awards for the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge:

  • 2011 Arthur G. Hayden Medal for a single recent outstanding achievement in bridge engineering demonstrating innovation in special use bridges.
  • 2011 Ingenium Excellence Awards.
  • 2011 International Footbridge Award in the aesthetics category (medium span).

1) What brought you to the field of engineering?

I was a farm boy with no encouragement or opportunity to go farming.
Childhood experiences of building things on the farm and my love of drawing lead me to study engineering as an adult student after starting my working life as a drafter.

When I started working for Santiago Calatrava in 2002, I entered the rarefied atmosphere of iconic bridge design. I have always loved bridges and have no great desire to design anything other than bridges and long spanning structures. I should point out, I spend most of my time designing heavy railway bridges which I enjoy just as much as the sexy projects like Te Rewa Rewa (TRR). Although the feedback for innovative and highly valued railway bridges is not quite the same as the feedback from TRR.

2) In what areas do you expect to see engineering innovation happening
in future years?

Standard short span precast bridges are about a 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of a “landmark” bridge, but the story their owners tell to Joe Public is “here is your bridge, perfectly functional, like it or lump it”. It doesn’t seem to matter if it is an affront to the senses or the community in which the bridges are situated. The public are becoming more demanding in terms of what is acceptable visually in terms of bridges. Non price attributes of bridges will have a greater bearing than just price on bridge selection.

With growing public intolerance to standard precast bridging, and with steel making technology and concrete moulding technology improving all the time, words like style, grace, elegance, dignity, meaning will start to be used alongside words like, economic, efficient, and the most dreadful of all “fit for purpose” in terms of bridge design. There will be resistance from clients, contractors, and engineers to this, but after a public backlash or two, things will change and everyone will get on board and some really great bridges should come out of this movement.

In New Zealand, I would like to think TRR and even some of the weathering steel ballast deck railway bridges I am currently designing are examples of this. They bring a value that never existed before.

3) Any advice for new engineers?

Develop a structural understanding for both concepts and details. This can be through hand sketches of simple models, details etc. and some associated hand calculations. Understand the load paths and structural behaviour before switching on the computer.

Develop a creative style. In regards to bridge design, actively study other bridges. Mentally note the pleasing and displeasing aspects of a particular bridge. Develop the mind to paper process by sketching concepts and details that are pleasing. Keep them in a folder or drawer until the opportunity arises where they can be utilised.

Train your eye to see what is beautiful in structures.

4) What is your dream project? (Maybe it is one you already built?)

Te Rewa Rewa was a dream project. I left Calatrava and Switzerland with a dream to design beautiful bridges in my homeland of New Zealand. Withsome fellow engineers we started Novare Design Ltd and started off designing railway bridges in 2004 and haven’t stopped. New Zealand is not only a “far” land it is a practical land by virtue of its history and remoteness.

In the past we haven’t had need or time for anything frivolous. The default position on bridge design is “cheap as chips” and “fit for purpose”. After my experience working for Santiago, this new environment was quite a contrast. When I first heard that the New Plymouth District Council wanted an “iconic” bridge, I thought “are they sure they really know what they are asking for”.

This was my opportunity. I was going to give them something special and off the top shelf. During the design competition I was competing against two other teams with architects, but really in my mind I was really trying to “out do” Santiago. My edge was this was my home land, I knew the history and had a sense of what was important to the local people.

The end result was TRR. In marketing parlance it has become a “destination”. However, the secret of its success is its spiritual dimension and the deeper meanings it engenders particularly for the local community.

I enjoy designing bridges for KiwiRail. I would like to design more truly iconic bridges – they don’t have to be big, they just need make people stop and wonder.

5) When your not working, what do you do for fun?

My kids are 5 and 7 so with school activities and their sport, they take up most of my time after work. I like to appreciate bridges but try not to become obsessed with them. I enjoy travelling with my family and catching up with friends.