PITTSBURGH – The construction office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District operates in a fast-paced environment, moving from one project to the next without a pause, while juggling several jobs simultaneously.
“I have a team of rock stars,” said David Conrad, a resident engineer for the Pittsburgh District’s construction branch.
Conrad oversees a team at the Neville Island Construction Resident Office, which handles 30 to 40 projects at any given time. His office leads some of the district’s smaller constructions, varying in scope from security fence installations and road repairs to massive miter gate fabrication or concrete work at 120-foot dams, and much more.
“We get to dabble in old structures that have a lot of history, but also have a lot of purpose today. It’s unique in that way,” said Wayne Carney, a project engineer who at any given point manages five to seven assignments, much like his teammates.
The team offers design, planning and contract oversight for projects that usually take a few months to construct but can occasionally last several years. The cost of each job ranges from a few hundred thousand to $10-15 million.
“Our projects aren’t always the flashiest or biggest, but at the end of the day, we are making our facilities better for our staff and better for the public,” Conrad said.
In comparison, the district’s construction branch has two other offices, one overseeing a billion-dollar mega project on the lower Monongahela River and another overseeing a $900-million construction on the upper Ohio River.
Whereas those mega projects are massive and can take decades to plan and complete, the Neville Island office delivers the district’s quicker missions, often finishing them in a single construction season.
That’s a fast pace in the construction world, Conrad said. As a result, the Neville Island engineers must move rapidly from one assignment to the next or handle several at a time.
“Everybody does an outstanding job. Sometimes I even wonder how they keep it all together because they’re in high demand all over the place. Kudos to them for being on top of their game and providing the level of service they do,” Conrad said.
Some projects benefit recreational users who visit the district’s reservoirs to enjoy the outdoors, while others provide safety and protection by reducing flood damage in residential areas against heavy rains.
“I love this job. I initially went into engineering because I wanted to make a difference in the community in which I live. That may sound corny, but it’s the truth,” Conrad said.
The Pittsburgh District’s identity revolves around water infrastructure. However, on some occasions, they also support governmental partners such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Forest Service for things like repaving roads and remediating soil.
“We’re highly experienced, and they look to us for engineering solutions,” Conrad said.
The Neville Island construction team has about a dozen engineers, including project engineers, an office engineer, and several construction representatives. Conrad said his teammates are adaptable, constantly on the move, able to partner with people from multiple organizations, and ready to travel across the district’s map.
“The main thing in being a public servant for the Corps of Engineers is we serve the people,” said Mike Curtis, a construction control representative who assures quality control for projects led by the Pittsburgh District.
“I take that to heart because every job we do benefits citizens. We make sure we deliver high quality projects as stewards of taxpayer dollars. That’s number one,” he said.
In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the district is making repairs to a flood protection concrete structure and removing sediment within the Mahoning Creek. At Crooked Creek Lake, they are repaving a road to control erosion leading to a boat launch. For a lock and dam on the Ohio River, the construction office designed and led the fabrication of new miter gates for much-needed replacements. The list goes on, and as soon as they complete three or four projects, a handful more come their way ready for construction.
“The staff here is dedicated and hardworking. We’re out there every day trying to make the district better in whatever opportunity we’re presented with,” Conrad said.
Conrad said that engineers who work in the construction section need to be well-rounded, good communicators, detail-oriented, and adaptable to change.
“You’d be surprised how quickly situations change out in the field. You could be thinking you’re going to accomplish one task in the morning, and by the afternoon, you might be on iteration number three of a whole new problem,” Conrad said.
New challenges always come up because of the complex nature of construction.
“You can plan all you want, but in the end, there can always be unforeseen things that come up,” said Matthew McKissick, a civil engineer with the Pittsburgh District.
Overcoming challenges is all about working through the problem together, Carney said.
“Problem solving brings you together as a team, both internally within the corps and externally with our contractors. It’s a collective effort,” he said.
The projects span a diverse landscape across the district’s 26,000 square-mile footprint.
“It keeps you engaged because you’re doing a different thing every day. It encourages all of us to work with a little bit more passion behind what we do,” Carney said.
With the fast pace and high demand, there is also a high sense of reward.
“For me, this job allows me to live up to that old adage you learn as a kid, that whatever you do, you want to leave a place better than how you found it,” Carney said.