Foundations Expert Shares Advice for Engineering Students
Over the course of his 55 years of experience in foundations and underground construction, George Tamaro has served as an owner, contractor and engineer working for public and private developers and constructors. From the start, Tamaro, a specialist in slurry walls, has been involved in some of the most massive and popular projects in the world.
He spent his first 11 years, from 1961 to 1971, with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. During his time with the Port Authority, he was granted a fellowship to study reinforced concrete in Italy. While in Italy, Tamaro was introduced to slurry walls and says he returned to the U.S. an instant expert on the construction system. He says he was the only guy in the office who had seen the process other than the Port Authority chief engineer.
Subsequently, he transferred to the World Trade Center in New York City in 1967 and oversaw the construction of the World Trade Center slurry walls. In 1972, Tamaro joined ICOS Corporation of America, a slurry wall contracting firm with clients around the world. In 1980 he joined Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, where he now serves in a consulting role after serving as senior partner for several years. In 2001 he returned to the World Trade Center to lead the engineering for the below grade recovery effort after 9/11.
In September, the Deep Foundations Institute (DFI) announced the establishment of the George J. Tamaro Manhattan College Civil Engineering Scholarship Fund in his honor. At the 9th annual DFI Educational Trust Fundraising Gala in November, Tamaro was the keynote speaker and gave a presentation titled “Student, Contractor, Engineer … My Career & the Importance of Education.”
“[It is] an honor, especially since it is the kickoff for a fundraising effort to establish an engineering scholarship in my name at my alma mater, Manhattan College,” Tamaro says.
In an interview with Tamaro post-gala, National Driller asked him about the large scale projects he has been involved in; his take on the state of foundations, geotechnical and slurry walls in particular; and the highlights of his presentation, which focused on his relationship to Manhattan College, his career in engineering and advice for engineering students.
This interview was edited for space and clarity.
Q. Why was the topic of education and your experience an important one to cover at the DFI Educational Trust Gala, in your opinion?
A. My talk encouraged students to work hard and persevere. … I didn’t think there was any technical subject that would be as effective. First of all, the audience contained a significant number of students. This was a scholarship dinner. It was intended to kick off the development of an endowment for a scholarship that was going to be issued in my name. The gala was oriented toward academics and scholarship. There were a significant number of students. We awarded two students two scholarships that night and there were academics from local schools in attendance. There was also a younger crowd in the audience, rather than a bunch of old folks, so I thought I would pitch my talk toward the young people and just share some of my thoughts. First I explained how I came to the point in life that I was at, what my background was, and then I suggested some guidelines of things students should be thinking about in their career. I mentioned graduate school, I mentioned continued studies, and I mentioned “don’t let anything get in your way.” There were a bunch of closure points that I felt were instructive to students and to faculty. … A technical paper would be better presented at a technical conference. My talk was more oriented to scholarship, academics and students.
I love to mentor. I love to share bad experiences and good experiences with people who follow. I do a lot of mentoring. I like to see people benefit from the experiences that I’ve had and work with them and guide them. People should share their experiences rather than hide them to blindside somebody with some secret they know and nobody else knows.
Q. If nothing else, what do you hope attendees take away from your presentation?
A. Encouragement to work hard and not shy away from adversity. … I was impressed when I was finished with my presentation that several people came and said that they felt the messages were worthy of exposure, of being brought to the students’ attention. I felt the people had listened and perhaps would benefit from some of what I said.
Q. What do you do as a consultant at Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers?
A. I’ve been dealing basically with problem solving. If somebody has a technical problem, I try to resolve the problem and then guide the client as to how to proceed. Sometimes, they end up in litigation and I provide expert testimony on why my client was not responsible for the problem that arose; or if he was responsible, to help him mitigate the damages. Lately, I’ve been involved in situations where people have a problem and are looking to solve the problem based on somebody’s experience rather than looking for somebody able to crunch numbers. Anybody can go buy a computer for $2,000 and run a computer program. That’s not what my clients are looking for. They’re looking for an experienced old bald guy who still has some semblance of memory remaining.
Over the last couple of years I have worked on a big slurry wall subway station in Washington State. I worked on a marine foundation project in Rhode Island. I’m now working on water proofing claims and damage on subway work in New York City. I’m involved in problems with the construction of foundations for one of the taller buildings in San Francisco — by the way, not the one that’s settling. I’m now working on a large-diameter slurry wall shaft in Guinea, in Africa. I am also working on a piling project in the Harlem River in New York. So, in summary, I am working on a variety of projects that are primarily underground and have structures related to them. My projects usually involve problems where people are looking for guidance. While I don’t enjoy people having the problem, I do enjoy the mental stimulation of trying to resolve the problem.
Q. What made you choose this career?
A. I have a bachelor’s degree from Manhattan College in civil engineering with a major in structures. I enjoy building and structural work, so when I completed my bachelor’s degree at Manhattan, I went to Lehigh [University] for a year and did research and studied for a master’s degree in structures. At the conclusion of my Lehigh studies, I realized that I still didn’t know as much as I’d like to know, so I went to Columbia [University] at night for about seven years; a couple credits here and a couple credits there to obtain a degree in architecture. I have a diverse academic background.
But getting back to how I got into foundations, it was quite accidental. The last super structure that I worked on was the massive hyperbolic paraboloid shell roof [at Newark Airport]. That was the last above grade structure I worked on. Then I was asked to go down to the World Trade Center to take over construction oversight for the Port Authority. I “descended into Hell” there and became a foundation engineer. In my practice I continued to be a structural engineer as well as a geotechnical engineer. I’m a little stronger on the structural engineering end. I enjoy it more. It’s neater and less variable than geotechnical engineering.
Q. What do you enjoy most about what you do?
A. The ability to be involved in the design and construction of major structures worldwide. … It’s the most creative aspect of it. The last thing I want to get involved in is the lawsuits at the end of a job. They’re very diminishing mentally. I like to be involved in the planning and conceptualizing of structures, and then their analysis and the design. It’s very creative and it’s nice after you’ve constructed something to be able to drive past it and point out to the kids saying, “Hey, look. Your father did that.” It’s a very rewarding thing to be involved in construction and particularly in the design and conceptualizing of projects.
Q. What are some of the most notable projects you’ve been involved in?
A. Of course the most monumental was the original World Trade Center slurry wall and the subsequent recovery effort after 9/11.
However, others stand out in my mind; for instance, when the wall came down in Berlin, our firm was involved in the design and construction of the first major three block redevelopment in Berlin. We brought U.S. construction technology to the site and represented a three-nation German, French and U.S. developer. We did foundation work for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. We did a total of four projects in Berlin. Once the technology is kind of absorbed, we pack up and move on. I’ve done slurry wall work in Korea and some of the work continues. I did a lot of work in Hong Kong with ICOS and with Mueser. I brought slurry wall technology to new clients who had not yet used the technology in their construction work.
Q. How has slurry wall technique evolved over the course of your career?
A. Designers and contractors are attempting the design and construction of increasingly more complicated and demanding slurry projects with diminishing time to execute the work. While slurry wall construction has become reasonably well understood, there are still a lot of people attempting to do it who are not knowledgeable and get themselves into major trouble. Ground conditions are sufficiently variable to cause problems for slurry wall construction. Variability of the ground is one of the major problems that have not yet been solved. Problems continue and they shouldn’t. People should be sharing experiences and understanding how to build these structures without getting themselves in trouble.
Q. How have the tools used for slurry walls evolved?
A. Some of the rudimentary tools used at the World Trade Center — the clamshell buckets and basic heavy drop chisels — are still being used. They’re still effective tools. They’re very versatile and they can be moved anywhere in the country and used to build a slurry wall. They are not the most productive operating equipment. They don’t churn out slurry walls like sliced white bread, but they do the job. Sophisticated tools like the hydromill or hydrofraise are improving on productivity, but they share the market with the basic clamshells and drop chisels.
While slurry wall construction has become reasonably well understood, there are still a lot of people attempting to do it who are not knowledgeable and get themselves into major trouble.
Q. In a profession like yours, what should education involve?
A. As much structural and geotechnical engineering study as possible. Designers should obtain field experience while constructors should work for some time in a design office. … At the end of my talk I mentioned that engineers starting out in any one of three areas — either structures, geotechnical or construction — should study the work and technology of the other two fields. If you’re a structural engineer, you should study geotechnical engineering and construction. If you’re a geotechnical engineer, you should study construction and structural engineering. Those three fields are essential to the successful execution of a project.
You have to have a broader experience and not stay narrow in one field. If you’re a structural engineer and you’re trying to design foundations without considering the behavior of the soil, you’re going to fail in the design of the foundation. If you’re a geotechnical engineer not understanding how structures behave, you’re going to end up designing something that will not function properly. I think that we have to expand from whatever specialty we start from, we have to expand and develop a broader base than we would had we stayed as structural engineers or geotechnical engineers.
Q. Are there any common misconceptions about your work you think are important to address?
A. It is important to understand that an engineer cannot be successful in underground construction without the support and help of experienced grey beards. Experience is paramount in underground construction.
Q. What advancements related your profession would benefit you and the work you do?
A. A better sense of collaboration between owners, engineers and contractors. Being at each other’s throat helps no one except the lawyers. … Fifty years ago we were a lot more collaborative. We didn’t worry about getting involved in lawsuits and getting beat over the head by the other parties. We worked as teams. Working as an owner, I had to understand the contractor’s and engineer’s point of view, how they operate and what motivates them. As a contractor I had to understand how the engineer and owner operate and what motivates them. Likewise, as an engineer I had to understand the owner’s and contractor’s point of view. You have to understand the three to successfully accomplish a project. Nowadays, a project starts up where the owner thinks the contractor’s a thief, the engineer thinks that the contractor’s incompetent, and the contractor thinks that the engineer doesn’t know how to design. Everybody starts off on the wrong footing. You can’t work that way because the physical environment is difficult enough without having prejudices interfere with successful work execution.
Q. What are your hopes and expectations for the future of your field?
A. Bigger and more complex projects with the opportunity and time to design and build them well. … I would hope that the universities begin to train engineers who are interested in underground work on a little broader base, that we train what we may call a “foundation engineer” rather than a structural engineer or a geotechnical engineer so that the foundation engineer understands soil structure interaction and is capable of dealing with both soil and the structural aspects of a project.
Q. What is your advice for those looking to pursue a career in this field?
A. Study hard, take as many engineering courses as possible, work hard and keep an open mind to opportunities. … Be flexible and take the opportunities that come your way. I, frankly, was an opportunist. I was hired by the Port Authority to work at the George Washington Bridge bus station at the George Washington Bridge. The George Washington Bridge Bus Station was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi who’s a famous Italian architect/engineer. The Port Authority at that time offered a fellowship to employees who could come up with a subject that could be beneficial to the Port Authority. I came up with the idea of studying the design of reinforced concrete structures at Nervi’s offices in Rome, Italy. The Port Authority awarded me that fellowship. One of the deciding factors was based on my ability to speak, read and write Italian.
The point that I’m trying to make is that if you have a special skill, whatever it is, use it. Be an opportunist; for instance, use a special skill to open up a wider vista for you and your career. When I came back from Italy, I worked on super structures like Newark Airport. The opportunity arose to go to the World Trade Center to work on this massive project using the completely new slurry wall technology. I took a chance and went to the World Trade Center to get into foundation engineering. The rest is history.