Frank Lombardi



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 responsibility.

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 staircase.

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.



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