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Eugene C. Figg, (August 4, 1936 – March 20, 2002) was an American structural engineer who made numerous contributions to the field of structural engineering, especially in the design of the cable-stayed bridge and the use of the segmental concrete construction method. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Figg’s passion for designing structures began during childhood when he often entertained himself by building scale models. Figg received his initial training as a structural engineer at The Citadel (military college), located in his hometown of Charleston. During his career, he brought the use of the segmental method for spanning large gaps to the United States with the assistance of his Paris-based partner, Jean M. Muller. He formed his own engineering firm, the Figg Engineering Group, the only national engineering firm that works on just bridges (Pittman 2001), that became North America’s foremost designer of the segmental concrete bridge. One of Figg’s major achievements was founding the American Segmental Bridge Institute in 1989, and also serving four years as a trustee at the National Building Museum. In 2000, Figg was honored with the John A. Roebling Medal for his outstanding lifetime achievement in structural engineering. Throughout his career, Figg worked diligently to combine function and form in his creation of some of the most aesthetically pleasing bridges ever designed.
The Interstate and Defense Highway System (IDHS) started up about a decade after the end of World War II, and the construction of the interstate highway system was underway. By the time Figg had graduated and completed his bridge design training, the IDHS was into its fifth year of constructing the 42,500 mile interstate system, and was still expanding throughout the country (Garber 2002). The addition of so many roads created a large demand for bridges, many of which needed to span distances that hadn’t been attempted before.
Figg started his engineering career in a time when computers were just taking off. The first commercial computer wasn’t available until Figg was 21 years old (Keitz 2007). These first computers were very expensive and were used mainly for storage and provided little assistance in calculations. When Figg was in his thirties, computers began to cost less and provide more. The 1960s, and 1970’s, hosted a majority of the pioneering work in technology for structural methods that are used today in concrete bridges. Before the late 1960s, bridges were constructed using deck hinges. This let the structure deform without applying high forces to the girders. However, over time the bridge itself would change shape because of the constant deformations. This would cause problems such as uneven road surfaces and early cracking in the pavement of the roads. Due to improvements in technology, however, this problem was solved using closure joints that made the bridge span continuous (Murillo 2004). This continuity method was made possible largely due to the creation of computer programs that could create detailed material-behavior-prediction models. Using these programs, engineers could run simulations that would help them predict whether or not these new techniques would work. These programs were not available until the early 1970s, because the computer itself still needed improvement.
The 1960s, and 1970s, also brought the development of the concrete cable-stayed girder bridge, which is another type of bridge that made Figg famous. The method of constructing this type of bridge not only increased the maximum span of concrete bridges, but also made concrete bridges much more competitive with steel truss and arch bridges because this method was much more cost-effective (Keitz 2007). This was due largely to the high compressive strength of concrete. Other new bridge construction methods that were developed at the time include the span-by-span method, the progressive placement method, and the incremental launching method. All of these methods were developed around the same time period because of the advancements in computer software design.
By the time Figg had graduated, a majority of construction materials were not only available but had already been used in building and bridge construction. However, a major material that became available as Figg’s career took off was prestressed concrete. Prestressed concrete is crucial to concrete bridge design because it overcomes concrete’s natural weakness in tension. Figg was introduced to this material by Bill Dean, the “father of prestressed concrete”, and his mentor during his bridge design training at the Florida Department of Transportation. Prestressed concrete was introduced to the United States in 1949, and today is the most used composite material for bridges (Murillo 2004). This construction material became vital to many of the bridges Figg would later design.
Gene Figg’s engineering began at a time where computers were quickly being integrated into common engineering practices and were an everyday necessity by the time his career was over.
Socio-economic and political environments
Eugene Figg’s lifetime was wrought with war, economic fluctuation, and infrastructure renovation. Born just two years after “…Hitler claimed credit and consolidated his position as a dictator…” (Meier, 2000) in 1934, Figg’s early years were spent in the United States' economic depression, The Great Depression. After the U.S.’s involvements with World War II in 1945, the economy was ready to turn its attention to the returning troops. “To integrate millions of young veterans into the American economy, the 78th Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights on June 22, 1944.” (U-S-History.com) The GI Bill provided veterans low-interest rates and they were able to purchase homes and seek higher education, which sparked a movement into the Baby Boom generation as well as a move into the suburbs. With a growing number of children, more schools had to be built (U-S-History.com), as well the transportation systems of the suburb communities and routes to larger cities.
Foreseeing these events, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 created the "National System of Interstate Highways” which authorized a network of rural and urban express highways to be built. The act lacked proper funding and never lived up to expectations until Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It was to be the largest public works project in history. (About Inc.) Figg graduated as a civil engineer two years later and the act helped to provide the funding for his early career.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. economy continued to grow, but the effects of the Cold War were imminent. Many families built bomb shelters in their yards, and children had learned to “duck and cover” under their desks as an emergency drill to a nuclear blast (U-S-History.com). This state of cold war was fought through Vietnam with America supporting the anti-communist South Vietnam and the Soviet Union supporting the pro-communist North Vietnam (What was the Cold War, 2000). The U.S.’s economy showed a short prosperous growth, which faltered when Lyndon Johnson failed to raise taxes to cover war expenses (Carr and Conte). The war dragged on until 1975 and the economy stagnated. During this time period though, the U.S. had established the Department of Transportation in 1966 and the Federal Highway Administration in 1967 (About Inc.). These agencies were responsible for building our nation’s transportations systems of roads and bridges and provided the funding for engineers like Figg.
This spending continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s as the Nation’s government working with the individual states to build roughly 43,000 miles of Interstate. They are now called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (About Inc.). By the mid-1980s, the Nation’s economy had rebounded from a recession, the Cold War had ended and inflation was kept under five percent which held throughout the 1990s.
Figg had started his own business, named Figg Engineering Group, around the early 1980s (Figg Engineering Group, 2004). During that time, Reagan’s presidency gave way to George H. W. Bush and the communist regime of the Soviet Union faltered. The personal computer was on the rise and the world began to turn into a digital age. With computers being more prevalent, certain forms of work and processes could be done much faster and enabled firms like Figg Engineering Group to achieve success.
Throughout his lifetime, Eugene Figg saw the U.S. economy sway up and down. He took part in the rise of the U.S. infrastructure and used that as an economic stepping-stone to build his company and provide massive and aesthetically pleasing bridges. He also revolutionized bridge construction by using new technology, materials and techniques to build bridges larger, faster and cheaper. Computer models, larger and more efficient equipment, and precast concrete were all incorporated in construction as Figg repeatedly finished projects on time and under budget.
Education and training
Gene Figg’s career started out a lot like any other engineer’s. His interest in bridges began in high school as he developed a hobby of building models. This interest soon developed into the foundation of his life’s work; building low-cost, low maintenance, and aesthetically pleasing bridges. Figg furthered his education like many other aspiring engineers, by obtaining a civil engineering degree at his hometown institution, The Citadel, in 1958 (Marsh 2002). Up until this point, Figg’s career path seems very similar to that of any other college engineering student, as many students choose to attend local engineering institutions.
Figg then began his professional career, which consisted of working with a couple of different engineering firms. However, his affiliation with leading French engineer Jean Muller, at Figg and Muller Engineers, allowed him to gain valuable insight into the application of pre-cast segmental bridge construction methods to the domestic market. Mueller helped Figg present the idea of segmental construction as an economically viable option to many available projects at the time. When they coupled this construction method with cable-stayed supports, Mueller and Figg effectively increased the use of concrete in longer span bridge proposals. By applying what they had learned to a few bridge designs in Florida, Figg helped to change the way bridges were built in the United States and Canada. Figg played such an instrumental part in the use and development of segmental pre-cast concrete bridge construction that he founded the American Segmental Bridge Institute in 1989 (Marsh 2002). The Institute’s purpose was to help endorse concrete segmental construction by bringing together owners, suppliers, contractors, and designers.
Throughout his career, Figg learned many important lessons from each of his many different projects. These lessons allowed Figg to become highly skilled at delivering designs to communities that would evoke a sense of civic pride in the structure, and being environmentally suitable for the surrounding conditions. Also, as Figg’s own firm, Figg Engineering Group, gained popularity, it presented him opportunities to apply other bridge designs that he had developed over his career, such as the cable-stayed bridge. This highlights the fact that as Figg’s career continued, he furthered his education by learning from each experience that he had encountered.
From Eugene Figg's childhood in Charleston, South Carolina to his later years in Tallahassee, Florida, he was a man of great imagination and thought. When he decided to go for something, he pursued it with everything he had. It was these traits that propelled him so successfully throughout his life and career.
His early life was in South Carolina where one might say he began his career as a designer. Figg was quite fond of building models of all kinds, focusing mainly on ships and airplanes (Wilson 2000). Of course, the young Figg was only allowed to work on his models on rainy days, as his mother apparently had a rule that required him to be outside whenever the weather was nice (Vogel 2006). Figg also was an avid sports fan, and became a high school football star in his native Charleston (Ensley 2002).
During his senior year of high school, Figg made one of the most important decisions of his career when he decided to follow his father’s footsteps, and enter the field of civil engineering. Gene Figg, Sr. received his degree in civil engineering at The Citadel, and later advanced into a career with the U.S. Navy. Taking the same path through college, Gene Figg, Jr. graduated from The Citadel with his degree in civil engineering in 1958. Following graduation, however, the younger Figg’s career path diverged from his father’s, when he attended a three-year bridge design training program with the Florida Department of Transportation. It was at this training program where Figg found a mentor in Bill Dean, who was considered by many to be the “father of pre-stressed concrete in America” (Wilson 2000).
After six years, Figg left the Florida Department of Transportation for the private sector. He joined an established architectural/engineering firm, Barrett, Daffin and Bishop, in Tallahassee, that later became Barrett, Daffin, and Figg, where he learned client relations and the business side of engineering. Eventually Figg broke out on his own, and formed Figg Engineering Group, where he was finally able to focus on his true passion, bridges (Wilson 2000). “’Gene was very creative,’ said Jack Mowell, a longtime friend and member of the board of directors for Figg Engineering Group. ‘He felt bridges should be works of art, not just rivets and steel.’” (Ensley 2002) A man of great drive and ambition, Figg dabbled at golf and was an avid Florida State University sports fan. Often working 14–16 hours a day, even on weekends, he left little time for anything else. One thing Figg did find time for, however, was another one of his passions, his family. Together with his wife Ann Ruth, the dedicated family man raised four daughters. Their oldest, Linda, followed in her father’s footsteps and also became a structural engineer (Brassfield 2002). When asked why she had chosen to pursue a career in engineering, Figg’s daughter, Linda stated: "I decided to pursue a career in engineering because I always had a fascination with bridges, and throughout my education math and science were some of my favorite subjects. My father, Gene Figg, was an engineer who started the company while I was in engineering school at Auburn. When I completed my education at Auburn I joined the firm and worked with my father for 20 years before taking over as President/CEO five years ago. My father was a great inspiration to me and helped me see the value of a career in engineering. It is rewarding to see the greater good that engineers bring to society in improving the quality of life for communities." (Auburn Alumni Association 2007)
One of the biggest reasons for the success of his company is the extraordinary efforts taken to involve the public throughout many stages of a bridge’s development. “One of the important activities to us is dealing with the public and designing bridges that the public wants,” said Figg. “We’re convinced that the bridge tells you what the public thinks of itself.” (Zehyer 2002) Often considered an advocate for public involvement in bridge design, Figg conducted public meetings during both the design and construction stages of major bridge projects. During these meetings, Figg worked with the communities to help them arrive at decisions about the appearance of the bridge, while ensuring they stay within budget (ASCE 2002). These ideals which were passed down to his daughter, Linda, should serve as lessons for anyone entering the engineering field.
Figg once said, “I don’t go to work, I come to have fun.” (Wilson 2000) These are words any aspiring engineer should take to heart. If you truly enjoy what you are doing, it will show in your work. Figg has received over 130 design awards for his work over the years, highlighting his passion for bridges. Following his death in 2002, “The Eugene C. Figg, Jr. Medal for Signature Bridges” was created to commemorate Figg’s spirit and vision. The award will recognize outstanding achievement in bridge engineering that provides an icon to the community for which it was designed (Bridge Design & Engineering 2002). Over all the Figg Engineering Group has designed more segmental concrete bridges in America than all other firms combined, and has won more than 140 design awards (ASCE 2002). Despite all of his success and accomplishments, Figg remained well grounded throughout his career, a characteristic that every engineer, young and old, should strive to attain.
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