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Structural engineering for 2nd graders

Who loves a field trip?

You may not be aware that once the Portobello Cultural Life & Arts Building is up and running, we will be offering field trips of our building.


As the first certified green commercial building in Beaver County, the Portobello will be the perfect place to give schools a firsthand glimpse of how buildings can be on the cutting edge of caring for our environment.

Truthfully, even adults may find the science behind buildings that prioritize energy efficiency, water conservation, the use of sustainable materials, and a commitment to an overall healthy environment for both staff and guests, a bit overwhelming to understand. Thus, our goal is to create a field trip during which we communicate all these amazing features using language that even a 2nd grader can comprehend.

Or, as in the case of this blogger, a 50-year-old woman.

That’s exactly how John Gilbert Kaufman (Gil), CEO, and Principal of Atlantic Engineering Services (AES) suggested we approach our recent conversation about structural engineering and the uniqueness of the Portobello project: as if addressing a 50-year-old 2nd grader.

Developing a love for buildings and . . . donuts

With an early background in architecture, Gil found himself increasingly more intrigued by the engineering and construction aspects of buildings, ultimately landing him at Penn State. While assuming this path would lead to New York or Chicago, it was a small Pittsburgh firm that won him over. Following his time there, Gil, along with the owner of that same firm, and a third partner created AES, having now grown the company from those 3 original employees to 45 people in 4 different states.

“It’s been an enjoyable trip,” Gil remarked in our conversation, during which we also established a crucial personal detail, (that being his favorite Oram’s donut), “and it continues to be enjoyable, especially when we get interesting challenges like the Portobello Building.”

As for that donut, Gil prefers all things chocolate (double or triple the chocolate preferred) and even admits driving 40-50 minutes from the South Hills of Pittsburgh just to secure a box of Oram’s.

That’s commitment.

The kind of commitment we want on our Portobello team.

‘Dem bones, ‘dem bones

To help non-engineers and 2nd graders understand the process of building a structure, Gil utilizes basic anatomy.

Simply put, “We put the bones in the building to give it its initial form and strength. We make it stand up.”

Just as bones create the skeletal structure of the human body, the bones in construction ensure a building’s ability to support the loads from both the occupants and the elements. Through the design of the beams, columns, roof decking, structural components for the roof joists, and even the floor decking and joists, structural engineers assist with the vertical elements to create buildings strong enough to resist all the forces that mother nature decides to apply. To a layperson, even something as familiar as wall studs are absolutely necessary for creating resistance against wind and lateral forces, while also helping to maintain the roof.

Easy, right?

Not so fast.

Next, up, we search for buried treasure!

Underground treasure hunt

Nestled between two buildings, the Portobello’s site initially posed a healthy challenge for AES upon taking into account the differing basement depths of those adjacent properties. This discovery meant abandoning initial architectural plans that were proving uneconomical and offering alternative options.

“It’s always a balancing act. What many people don’t recognize when they see buildings that are relatively similar is that essentially every building is a little bit of a custom creation once you get below ground.”

And in Western PA, exploring below ground means discovering everything from abandoned mines to mud, clay, rock, or in the Portobello’s case a previous basement to a previous building, all which can affect initial construction plans.

Couldn’t one just rebuild on top of that material?

Unfortunately, no.

Gil explains, “The rubble from that previous building collapsed into our site and includes materials that are not very useful. The quality doesn’t lend itself to the consistency we would want in order to build on top of it.”

Hey, at least AES didn’t discover any crazy artifacts like rolled-up rugs or someone’s old refrigerator during their few initial tests at the Portobello site.

Their initial investigation, made through drilling tiny holes in the soil, followed by gazing through those holes (think peeking through a keyhole) gave them first impressions of what they would find under the surface. Though a good start, (essentially discovering bricks and the remnants of that older basement) it won’t be until a contractor arrives on-site with heavy machinery to remove shovels of soil that any huge discoveries will be made.

“This building will have the challenge of our getting down deep enough to get rid of all the problematic material. And we won’t know what that is until we really start the excavation. That’s when it gets interesting - when you find old cars,” Gil chuckles.

A 5000 piece 3D puzzle

“The most intriguing part of the Portobello will be trying to figure out how we can successfully pack as much usable space into this specific volume that we can create. Structural engineering is like working a jigsaw puzzle where you've got some big pieces, little pieces, and even tinier pieces and figuring out to make them all fit together without wasting space or creating empty volume - which isn’t terribly useful.”

Fellows Memorial Gardens: Youngstown, Ohio

Whether working on a larger structure like Fellows Memorial Gardens, the new headquarters for the PGA or a smaller neighborhood project like the Portobello Building, the folks at AES are pros. Beginning with the overall purpose for the building in mind, their next step is to design the initial structure (bones), followed by clearing the intended space (treasure hunt) and then filling in all the pieces to create a unique and beautiful building (finished puzzle).


So easy a 2nd grader can explain it!

You are welcome to watch the treasure hunt commence when we break ground in Spring 2020 thus preparing the site for Gil and his team to connect the pieces of the structure and help it stand up!

Tall. Proud. And welcoming to all.

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