New York Senior Vice President Sorin Moisi. Photo by Vakaris Renetskis.
As a young man in his native Romania, Senior Vice President Sorin Moisi decided to become an engineer. But while many of his friends opted for the popular field of automobile design, Moisi gravitated toward buildings.
“I went into engineering because I enjoy the scientific part of life,” Moisi, who is based in the New York office, said. “And I became a structural engineer because I wanted to design things on a big scale.”
When Moisi joined Thornton Tomasetti legacy firm Lev Zetlin Associates in August 1983, he started working on the New York City landmark World Financial Center. But over the years, his focus shifted from new design projects to forensic investigations, renovations and rehabilitations of existing structures and expert witness work. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Renewal and Forensics work is challenging and I really enjoy it,” he said. “You have to know enough about structures to be able to determine what the issues are and then come up with the appropriate solution. When a project involves litigation or you are called on to provide expert witness testimony, it becomes even more of a challenge in that you have to be able to present your findings in a clear and precise manner. You have to be knowledgeable and able to use that knowledge, both theoretical and practical, to provide the answers.”
As he marks 30 years with the firm, Moisi talked about the early days, signature projects and the importance of approaching each new job with a clean slate.
How did you come to Thornton Tomasetti?
In 1983 I was working at Stone & Webster, where I was involved with the design of nuclear power plants. This was something new to me and I enjoyed the challenge. I worked for a few different companies designing structural elements for power plants. But by the early ’80s, for various reasons power plants were less in demand.
One day I met a friend who as working at the development firm Olympia & York. He told me about the firm’s World Financial Center project in New York. He mentioned that Lev Zetlin Associates, the consulting firm that was designing three buildings at the complex, was looking for engineers. If I was interested, he could arrange an interview for me at the firm. So I interviewed with Abe Gutman, who hired me. The rest is history.
What was the company like when you started?
When I joined LZA, we were approximately 70 employees, engineers and administrative staff. The office was very busy because we had quite a few big projects. We worked long hours. From time to time, we would go out after work for a beer and share experiences and I remember one year we congregated in Tom Scarangello’s one-bedroom apartment in Westchester to watch the Super Bowl. For many of us, the company was a second family. I look back fondly on those years.
Sorin Moisi (right) in the firm’s Park Avenue South office in 1984.
What was the first project you worked on?
My first project was the redesign of Building D at the World Financial Center complex. The building was already in construction, but Merrill Lynch, the tenant, wanted changes to accommodate their needs. I worked with Paul Lew and Abe Gutman. Richard Tomasetti was the principal in charge. It was a challenging and complex project from both technical and coordination standpoints. Cesar Pelli was the conceptual architect and HLW was the production architect. We had to coordinate our work with both entities.
How did you get involved in Building Performance work?
In the early ’90s, Dan Cuoco was putting together a separate group for forensic work called LZA Technology. We had previously been doing investigations, renovations and forensic engineering, but LZA Technology, which is now our Building Performance practice, formalized that work. Dan asked a few of us whom he had been working with to join him and I was one of them. I started working with Bob Nacheman on various investigation, forensic engineering and rehabilitation projects. Also, I was performing QA/QC for all the projects produced by the department.
One of our big jobs back then was an investigation at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. Although that project started before the creation of Technology, it led to a lot of work for us. We were called in via Dennis Poon after a piece of concrete had fallen in the garage. We found a number of issues with the four-story garage, which is part of the hospital’s annex building. The annex contains offices and laboratories as well as the power plant for the entire hospital. Following our investigation, the client asked us to produce a set of repair drawings. We worked day and night to implement the work. It was a very challenging project in that the power plant was the heart of the hospital. We had to strategize the repair work so we wouldn’t disrupt the power plant operations. We had one guy who was on site so much that he practically lived in his car. In the meantime, the hospital started building a new wing, which Aine Brazil was involved with. New chillers and cooling towers were required. I was involved with this project. We have been doing business with the hospital ever since.
What were some of the other memorable projects you worked on during your career?
I worked on quite a few projects during my tenure at Thornton Tomasetti, including a condition assessment at One Police Plaza and a renovation of Citicorp Center’s crown in Manhattan and a design upgrade of a Chase Manhattan Bank facility on Long Island. Whether it’s a small investigation or large-scale renovation, I always approach each project as if it is something entirely new. That’s why I have enjoyed every moment of my work.
There are times when portions of our work can be repetitious, and some people look to simplify things by carrying details over from one project to another. But mistakes are made that way. I ask people who work for me to read through the typical details and notes to make sure they apply to that particular job. You don’t want to give the wrong information to the contractor. Not only can those mistakes be costly, but your reputation is on the line as well. Besides, every project brings an opportunity to learn something new. It may not always be from a technical standpoint; it might be ways of improving project coordination or dealing with clients.
Moisi had been designing nuclear power plants when he came to Thornton Tomasetti in August 1983.
How has the industry changed since you first started? Engineering tools are much improved. Computer programs, of which there were only few when I started, can now do a lot for our trade. Also, the industry is constantly evolving. Today’s design teams have to be very creative in order to compete. Clients want consulting firms to provide multiple services, especially when dealing with large renovations. In addition to structural services, they want architectural and mechanical services, which at Thornton Tomasetti we are able to provide.
What do you think will be the most important trend for our industry moving forward?
The most important, as well as challenging, trend will be the ability to produce sustainable designs. More developers and building owners are looking for designs that are in compliance with LEED standards or new building codes. What is challenging for us as structural engineers is that we do not set the tone for LEED projects. It is the architects and the mechanical engineers that take the lead. Our role is to put their ideas into practice. Over the last few years, a growing number of clients have asked me how they can make their buildings more efficient. Although they want to be more sustainable, sometimes you have to convince clients that potentially higher upfront costs will be recovered through efficiencies and in some cases incentive programs. I think our firm is ahead of the curve in that we have the Sustainability practice to help us service clients.
What advice do you have for younger staff?
Young engineers should learn to approach a project holistically. Often in Building Performance different disciplines will work together on a project. When I am investigating a structure and find problems, I know that they could have been generated by various causes. So I bring in our architects or mechanical staff to help determine the nature of the problem. We will then work together to develop a solution. The Building Performance practice is multi-disciplined, and as I said earlier, clients want turnkey services. They want a one-stop shop.
Also, the younger generation is extremely smart, but they need to make sure they understand the theoretical aspects of what we do. Always try to substantiate whatever technical decisions you make with a theory. And lastly, don’t neglect any opportunity to improve yourself. It is how you grow both personally and professionally.
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