Julie Babb Smith helped spearhead the I-35W bridge project and the children's program they brought to the public.
Julie Babb Smith helped spearhead the I-35W bridge project and the children's program they brought to the public.

While going through old scrapbooks of her youth, Julie Babb Smith found that photos of bridges were sprinkled throughout—a foreshadowing of her future. Today, Smith is an engineer of project development at FIGG Engineering Group, Tallahassee, Fla., working on some of the most prominent bridges in the country.

“I've always enjoyed bridges aesthetically and of course, their functionality,” says Smith. While their beauty attracted her subconsciously for years, it wasn't until she was studying engineering that she realized she wanted to build bridges.

“I was always good in math and science,” she says. “And I was always the kid breaking things apart so I could try to put them together.” So engineering was a natural calling for her.

In her 6 ½ years at FIGG, Smith has developed concrete bridge designs and involved the public in the final design. “FIGG is known for that,” says Smith. “The public picks out the aesthetic elements.” Smith goes to public meetings with designs for the theme, railings, sidewalks, pier shapes, and other features. “We have an open discussion and listen to what the community says,” she explains.

On the new I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge in Minneapolis, Smith worked with company president Linda Figg on a new way to incorporate the public. About 1800 school children came to an engineering/construction class to learn about sustainability and bridge design. Smith helped the kids make concrete tiles with recycled glass aggregate to decorate the bridge. We got wonderful feedback, she says, including many cards and letters from the students.

Intense pace

While that was fun, the rest of the I-35W project was more intense. “It was fast-paced the whole time. I don't think we even stopped to think about it,” says Smith. “But it was an exciting, once in a lifetime experience.” She found it unbelievable how everything and everyone—designer, engineer, producer, and contractor—seemed to work together so seamlessly on a high-pressure project.

Sustainability was touted as the big issue for the I-35W bridge, but it's also an issue for all bridges. “After watching the old bridge collapse, it was essential to incorporate sustainability in all the elements to make this bridge stand the test of time.

“The Minnesota Department of Transportation was very hands-on all the way through,” she says. Everything mattered, including the design, the mixes, and the best construction techniques.

But the deadlines, working with the public, and high-pressure projects are only part of what Smith enjoys in her job. She finds that they don't need to recruit women engineers to work at FIGG. “Linda as our president attracts female engineers who like to see someone like her in a leadership role,” Smith says.

Smith will speak about sustainability and the I-35 project at the Women in Concrete Luncheon and Forum on Feb. 4 at World of Concrete in Las Vegas. Also, Tanya Wattenburg Komas from California State, Chico, will discuss repairing the future by looking at the past, and Shellie Rigby, Acanthus, will talk about creative opportunities in decorative concrete. To register, visit www.worldofconcrete.com.

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