Laura Sutton, PE, CPM, is a Chief Engineer in our Raleigh, NC office. She recently joined KCA in November 2022 after a 31-year-long career with NCDOT including 21 years with the Structures Management Unit.
Why did you decide to become an engineer?
I grew up as a “Marine brat” and we lived all over the country. Although my parents both came from small towns, they both had college degrees in mathematics. Mom worked in the computer industry and Dad became a pilot in the US Marine Corps. They treated daughters and sons the same and there was always an expectation that we would go to college. Math was my favorite subject in school and I loved sketching floor plans. I didn’t inherit my Mom’s artistic talents and did not get selected for the architecture college at UNC Charlotte. Engineering was the best long-term option for someone that was good at math and wanted to earn a good living (back in the late 1980s).
What is the biggest change (during your career) that has impacted the industry?
Technology: When I started my career, plans were drawn with ink pens on mylar paper. We had a blueprint machine and copier for full size plan sheets (24”x36”). Bridge designs were compiled in big notebooks with hand calculations. Over my career, technology has changed how designs and plans are produced but the design guidelines are still very similar to what they were three decades ago, with updates to improve safety and minimize risks.
How do you envision the future of engineering?
I think the future of engineering will continue to evolve as we are seeing today with 3D modeling. 3D models and visualizations are extremely useful in helping the public understand the proposed project, but yesterday’s visualizations were developed from 2D plans. Tomorrow’s visualizations will be based on 3D models that engineers develop and 2D plans, if needed, will be a by-product of the 3D model. Virtual reality will be a valuable tool for leveraging the 3D design models so that the public can envision the final project before construction starts.
What is the most unique project you have worked on?
I have worked on simple and complex bridges in my career – from cored slab bridges to continuous steel curved girder bridges. The most unique/challenging bridge project I worked on was the US 64 bridge crossing of the Hiwassee River near Murphy, NC. Due to environmental concerns, interior bents were not allowed in the river and the Hiwassee River was about 300 feet wide at this bridge location. The proposed bridge was 222.218m (729’) long with spans of 60.69m-101m-60.69m (199’-331’-199’) and consisted of 3m (10’) continuous steel plate girders on 3.66m (12’) centers with a reinforced concrete deck. The end bents were typical pile foundations, and the interior bents were 2-column bents on 2.134m (7’) drilled piers. Constructability and accessibility were major concerns, and at one point we had to consider and analyze “launching” the girders. In the end, we were able to devise work bridges that extended into the river that the permitting agencies allowed, and we limited the steel girders segments to a maximum of 120 feet due to shipping concerns. So, when I talk about how long the center span is, I like to say it’s almost as same distance as the goal posts on a football field.