Balusters - Yes, balusters! As a
young, inexperienced structural engineering trainee at the Port of New
York Authority, I learned all about “balusters” the hard way.
I am not talking about the wood spindle
types that support the handrail of stairs in your home. I am talking
about the vertical steel posts that act as elements of a vehicular
guardrail assembly on roadways. The posts support the principal elements
of the guardrail, which keeps vehicles from leaving elevated roadways.
In the early 70s, the design of the LGA
Parking Garage had started while we were at 111 8th Avenue, and it
continued after we moved to our new location at the WTC. I was assigned
to design the structural roadways leading into and out of the parking
structure’s third floor. I had relished the extent of this
After the construction contract was
awarded, we had a shop drawing review and approval process. I went into
this design-construction phase with a renewed sense of purpose because I
would be close to seeing the actual construction of the portion of the
project that I personally designed and worked on. The planning and
design phases were significant steps in accomplishing that end.
Shop drawings of the roadways started to
come in. The contractor’s detailer, who prepared the shop drawings,
would occasionally bubble-circle a note on a shop drawing to bring
attention to a specific question to be addressed and answered.
One of these circled questions had to do
with the “balusters”. In this case, it had to do with the steel posts
that supported steel plates as part of the railing assembly. These posts
were to be anchored to the roadways’ concrete surfaces.
“Are the posts perpendicular to the slope
of the roadway?”, was one key question. In other words, for those of you
who may not understand the significance of this question, it translates
to: “Are the balusters perpendicular to the slope of the ‘stair’?” I
must admit that I was a little puzzled as to why the question and how to
answer. Yet, I was determined to give it a thoughtful response.
On the contract drawings that defined the
nature of the work, there was a detail of all steel posts and it plainly
showed that all vertical elements were to be plumb. However, there were
also drawing elevations of the inbound and outbound roadways showing
that the posts were perpendicular to the slope of both roadways – a
troubling indication of the lack of clarity in communicating via
drawings. So, this led me to conclude as to why the detailer was asking
this question. In the elevation, it was evident that the posts were
shown to be inclined and not plumb, even though the slope of the
roadways was slight and not as steep as the slope of a typical
Now, how to answer? As a typical
inexperienced engineer, I rationalized that it would be a lot easier to
fabricate the railing assembly if the posts were perpendicular to the
slope of the roadways. Cutting all plates at angles (take a look at the
angle cuts at the top of each wood spindle beneath the handrail in your
home) would be eliminated. There was lots of welding to be done between
the steel posts and base plates, and between the posts and top and
middle railing plates. So, I answered “yes” to the detailer’s question –
proud not to sacrifice function while making fabrication much easier.
Obviously and ignorantly, I had totally
ignored how it might look to knowledgeable and aesthetically trained
eyes – like those of architects, or anyone who is sensitive to observe
anything that is off being plumb.
Nevertheless, the posts were built this way – inclined and perpendicular
to the slope of the roadways!
After construction, every time I went to
LGA or passed by on the Grand Central Parkway, my eyes were drawn to
those tilted posts. I had imagined how the fabrication professionals,
who probably knew better, were making fun of some engineer at the PONYA
– moi – who had approved the shop drawings that way.
Now that the garage structure and the
roadways have been demolished, thanks to the current LGA Redevelopment
Project, I no longer have any evidence of that aesthetic flaw – that
mistake, in my mind, a failure to communicate.
Needless to say, today, I must admit that
when I look at “balusters”, I am often reminded about the posts at LGA,
which are no longer there – plumb, perpendicular or otherwise.