INTERFACE: A COMMON BOUNDARY OR INTERCONNECTION BETWEEN CONCEPTS OR PEOPLE.
Interview with Rebecca Buntrock of Robert Silman & Associates Structural Engineer for the Menokin Glass Project October 15, 2015 by Menokin staffer, Debbie Wahlstrom
Debbie Wahlstrom (DW): What is it like to be an engineer and how would you describe the difference between an architect and an engineer in a project like this?
Every day as a structural engineer is a little bit different and could be spent coordinating with architects, building a large analysis model, or taking measurements in an existing building – or sometimes several of these at once! This is particularly true on a project like the Menokin House, which combines a high degree of existing building preservation, new design, and their interface.
I often get asked what the difference is between a structural engineer and an architect – if the architect designs the building, what exactly does the engineer do? Simply put, the architect designs the form, shape, and layout of the building, and we design the structure that supports it. Our ultimate goal is to establish a safe and code-compliant structural system (beams, columns, lateral frames, etc.) that still meets the architect’s vision. It’s an iterative process of collaboration between the structural engineer and the architect.
DW:So it sounds like the architects work with the design, and the engineer makes sure that design is practical to reality, to everyday life.
RB: Yes, exactly. The architect creates the form, but we work with them from the onset to provide guidance and feedback to create a solution that still observes the laws of gravity.
DW: Are you working on other projects in addition to helping us with Menokin?
RB: Yes, I do have other ongoing projects. The Menokin House is a very important and special project, but is also a relatively small building and the schedule is variable. My primary area of interest is renovation and preservation of existing buildings but I also work on new construction. At Silman, we’ve always found that working on both types of construction (new and existing) can really complement each other. Working on new buildings gives you a solid foundation for analysis, whereas through existing buildings, we can really see what has and hasn’t worked over time, in particular from a material and detailing perspective. These lessons and experience are put to good use at Menokin.
DW: How did you come into the field of engineering and why did you choose to do that?
RB: I was not one of those people that knew right away growing up that I wanted to be an engineer. I was good at math but I also enjoy art, writing, and history. I started off in college as a math major in the Arts Faculty at McGill in an attempt to combine all of these interests. However, my math classes immediately became much too theoretical for my liking and I realized it was applied math (calculus, geometry, physics) that I preferred. I switched into civil engineering and it became fairly obvious that this was probably where I should have been all along. The applied mathematics combined with problem solving and the practical, tangible aspect of structural engineering was a much better fit for me. And working with existing buildings involves a lot of writing, communication, and historic research, so I am still able to do many of the things I enjoy.
DW: I love that! It is so neat when you get to put all of your interests together in one little package. And I feel like my own work here at Menokin has allowed me to do the same.
RB: Definitely. I was very lucky. When you are first starting out and trying to decide what you want to do with your life, it’s a lot of pressure to make the ‘right’ decision to graduate on time. But how can you really know? I was lucky that it turned out so well for me.
DW: Do you have any experiences as being a female in the field that are unique to you in that way…or do you feel like it has been the same for you as the men… or, what is your perspective on that?
RB:I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of support, opportunity and encouragement throughout my career from work colleagues and mentors. This has been hugely important to me to have people to look up to and learn from. But there are challenges to being a female in a workplace and the construction industry which is still a male-dominated field. I would say most of this is inadvertent or subconscious but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It might be as simple as someone not listening to my suggestion, and then agreeing with a similar suggestion that comes from a male colleague. That does happen, and that can be frustrating.
DW: Do you have any particular advice for girls who are interested in pursuing this field in their future?
RB:It’s important to have the confidence that you belong there and that you have something to bring to the table. Take advantage of mentors in your career. Communication is also very important. I hated public speaking, I still do. But a lot of our job is speaking to contractors, architects, other engineers to communicate ideas. Working on these skills as early as possible will also help with confidence.
DW: I know what you mean; I think a lot of us get nervous having to talk in front of people, no matter what it is.
RB:And I think that especially when you are first starting out and you are sitting in a meeting it can be difficult to express yourself. And there are subtle things that do happen, like when I go to a site a contractor might say “oh, where did you go to school? You must have been the only woman in your class,” which is kind of antiquated; for example in my undergrad there was 30-40% women. It’s not like you are alone in the field anymore and in general people are very respectful of what you can do. I’m optimistic; I think that women engineers in the field are very much embraced.
DW: How did you get to come to be involved with our project here at Menokin?
RB:Silman, my firm, offers a fellowship for Preservation Engineering, and through that fellowship I spent 6 months working at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. So I was there in 2012 in that capacity and with another great female STEM team – Ashley Wilson, the Graham Gund Architect, and Katherine Malone-France, the current VP of Historic Sites at the Trust. Katherine used to work for Oak Grove Restoration, the contractors that built all the amazing scaffolding and catwalks that are currently on the site. So she organized for us to take a trip out to the Northern Neck to see this unique interpretation of a historic building and learn more about the renovation concepts.
Then it happened that when I returned to Silman, I got looped in to start working on the renovation project at the Menokin house. So it was kind of a cool thing where I saw it on my own and then ended up being very involved.
DW: I see. Huh…that’s really fun!
RB: Like fate (laugh).
DW: Yeah you’ve had a lot of good things like that work in your favor.
DW: When you visited Menokin with the National Trust, what would you say was your first impression or first memory of the project?
RB:I think it was probably the catwalk snaking around the ruins and the zip ties that hold the roof down. Getting to see through the guts of the building, the inside of it, this is the perfect building for that. It’s like x-ray vision to see how the whole thing was constructed. You know, you can climb up through and peak in, and see everything; it’s all really raw and exposed.
It’s such a cool thing to see where that tree fell down in the middle of it and created the masonry ruins, and to understand a little bit about the history based on what’s left and what the building has already experienced.
DW: I find myself wishing that I had more of your education…more architectural understanding…so that I could look at it and understand it even better. But even with my limited knowledge I like it too for those same reasons.
RB:Yeah I’ve noticed that when people visit historic buildings that is their favorite part. Even if you are not in this industry, it’s fun to understand what’s behind the wall and how things are constructed. I mean until I studied it, I would have had no idea. Maybe it will create some future engineers who got interested in construction because they got to see the site.
DW: What would you say has surprised you most about working to restore this home?
RB:It’s a fairly small building, but for the size there have been many architectural and engineering challenges! I think the main thing that surprised me was the resiliency of what remained after the tree had fallen on it, the masonry ruins, which are still standing after all these years.
DW: Right! That is interesting how those couple parts [have been] just holding themselves up.
RB: Exactly. It just goes to show you – as structural engineers we use the word “redundancy” – somehow this thing is still standing up even though we might not be able to put the numbers to it.
It’s also worth noting that the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) program documented this building in the 1940s, before the tree fell on it and caused half of the walls to collapse. The luck, or rather such good foresight that they did document this building means that we have the plans to interpret. It’s such a great example of how important the HABS program is for documenting historic structures.
DW: Yeah …I like that too. There was a man that just came in not too long ago, and he had some pieces from Menokin but we don’t know exactly where they go yet. He said that he remembers coming at age 10 (I guess he is 75 now, so 65 years ago) with his dad, and his dad was encouraging Mr. Omohundro to let them help preserve it or something. When he returned years later after the tree fell on it, he said he felt very emotional, like he wanted to cry. Then he saw these boards (maybe from a door or window?) on the ground and he had a feeling that he should pick them up or something might happen to them. So, just a couple of weeks ago, he brought them to us and told us his story.
DW: Yeah it was a really interesting story.
RB:I also heard, I don’t know exactly the logistics of it, but they found the original building plans for Menokin over at Mt. Airy, the building down the street. I think that’s so cool too. You never know what’s important in your attic, I guess.
DW: Right! All these little details that you don’t think matter and then everything comes together to help.
DW:What do you think is the most challenging part about the restoration project?
RB:From an engineering perspective, there are a lot of different moving parts, from the existing wall stabilization and restoration, the new construction of a steel framed enclosure, and how the new and existing interface with one another. On this building every single connection is going to be a little bit different. We are trying to be so careful about the existing fabric and reusing openings and original elements where we can, that we almost have to look at every single condition on its own. Again you’ve got to think that for such a small building it’s got a lot of surprises and I think that is what is so great about it, but it is also one of the most challenging parts.
DW: Right, you are working with the architects and the archaeologists and everybody has to kind of think in terms of what is most important in their field and then bring it all together and make it work.
RB:Yeah exactly, it’s very collaborative, and there are very important preservation requirements and even small decisions can be very critical.
DW: What do you enjoy the most about it?
RB:It’s a little jewel box building but it has every single type of engineering challenge you could dream of. I mean with all the existing conditions, where we are re-using the walls to support the wind load, the glass enclosure, it’s sort of everything all in one little cute building (laugh).
DW: (also laughing) Yeah it’s a big project for being such a small building.
RB:Exactly. And, also I can’t complain about getting to visit the beautiful Northern Neck and getting to see Lightfoot [Menokin’s mascot and official dog greeter].
DW: How would your closest friends or family describe you?
RB:This one was hard for me; I actually polled my family and friends (laughing). I think I’m pretty friendly and positive. I’m a little bit type A. I do like to seek knowledge, and I’m enthusiastic for the most part. I like to think I’m smart (laughing again). (DW – You are smart.)
DW: And when you say “type A,” do people typically mean “staying with tasks pretty well”?
RB:Yes, I stay with tasks well and when I do something I aim to see it through. I like my role of managing a project like this and working through solutions for the challenges.
DW: Those are all good things. It is fun to be a wide variety of good things, because I think it makes you or any of us interesting as a person.
DW: What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working?
RB:I enjoy running, I ran in the New York Marathon last year. I find that’s a nice way to let off steam after a busy workday or sitting at the desk all day. In the spring and fall I enjoy biking, which is a good way to get out of the city. I also enjoy traveling, and spending time with family and friends. When I do travel I tend to seek out historic architecture both around New York and around the world.
DW: Oh that’s neat. Traveling gives you such a good perspective of what’s going on everywhere and seeing the similarities and differences.
RB:It’s interesting too because here in the United States, a historic building might be 200 years old, while in Europe it’s 2000 years old. We are such a young country but we still have a great stock of old buildings and history. I like comparing the two.
Menokin Interface is a new, periodic feature on Menokin: Rubble With A Cause. Debbie will interview other Menokin Glass Project team members as well as trustees, old friends, community members and others who have “interfaced” with Menokin in their lifetime.
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