Dan Cuoco, former president & CEO, died on Sunday, Sept. 21 after a long illness. He was 68 years old. For nearly a decade, Dan had been the steady hand at the helm, guiding Thornton Tomasetti through both the calm waters of prosperity and the rough swells of the economic downturn. When he retired in 2011, Dan had been with the firm for 40 years and left his mark through scores of notable projects, company acquisitions, strategic partnerships, new ventures and our expansion outside of the United States.
As we mourn the loss of an exceptional leader and brilliant engineer, we share this article that appeared on the Thornton Tomasetti intranet in February 2011 to mark Dan’s 40th anniversary. In his own words, Dan conveys the depth of his commitment to the firm and passion for the engineering profession. As we continue to strive for excellence, his legacy will live on.
It was February 1971 when young aerospace engineer Dan Cuoco joined Lev Zetlin Associates, a small Manhattan structural engineering firm with a reputation for innovation. Working with a slide rule and Mylar drawings, Cuoco quickly found himself involved in many of the firm’s landmark projects such as Logan South Terminal parking garage in Boston, Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York and its first two high-rise structures, Continental Center and One Tampa City Center in Florida, for which he was named one of Engineering News-Record’s Newsmakers of 1980.
President & CEO Dan Cuoco left Grumman Aerospace Corp. in 1971 to join Thornton Tomasetti legacy firm, Lev Zetlin Associates.
With 40 years on the job, the President & CEO has been witness to, and an active participant in, Thornton Tomasetti’s growth from a 15-person, single-office firm to one that employs 550 staffers in 23 offices in the United States, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. On the occasion of his Ruby Anniversary, Cuoco looks back at his long and successful career at Thornton Tomasetti and offers his take on what lies ahead for the design industry.
How did you come to Thornton Tomasetti?
After I graduated in Feb. 1967 from City College with my bachelor’s degree, I went to work right away for Grumman Aerospace Corp. on Long Island, where I did the structural analysis for the A6 Intruder aircraft. A few months later, I enrolled in New York University’s master’s degree program in engineering and was invited to join Chi Epsilon, a civil engineering honor society. At the Chi Epsilon indoctrination dinner in 1969, (Founding Principal) Charlie Thornton, an NYU alumnus, was the guest speaker. He started talking about the work that Lev Zetlin Associates was doing. He talked about a paper bridge and plastic buildings you could take apart and put together. They were also designing airplane hangars in San Francisco and Los Angeles that were hyperbolic paraboloids with a light gauge steel structural system. These were very innovative structures, one of a kind, and I thought if I ever left the aerospace industry that would be the kind of company I’d like to work for.
At that time, I liked what I was doing. It was fun and interesting designing airplanes. But one morning, in late 1970, I looked over at my supervisor, a 25-year Grummanite, and he was sitting there with his slide rule, just like me. I just couldn’t see myself being in a job for 25 years and still doing the same things that I was doing then. So I decided to look for a job. I thought about that engineering company from the Chi Epsilon presentation, but I couldn’t remember the name. Coincidentally, the Dec. 1970 issue of Civil Engineering magazine had a cover story on the American Airlines hangars in California designed by Lev Zetlin Associates. I read the article and sent in a resume. A short time later, Charlie called and asked me to come in for an interview. I was busy at Grumman and it would have been difficult for me to get to the office, so Charlie suggested that I meet one of his colleagues, (Founding Principal) Richard Tomasetti, who lived nearby, on the weekend. I went to Richard’s house on a Sunday, we had a nice chat and they offered me a job.
In the late 1980s, Cuoco became president of LZA Technology, which now constitutes our Renewals and Forensics practices.
What was the first project you worked on?
One of my first jobs was a conference center for RCA. It was a glass-enclosed space frame structure they wanted to erect at the top of one of the Rockefeller Center buildings in New York. It never got built.
The first project I worked on that was built was a parking garage at Logan Airport in Boston. We were designing two terminals with a connecting garage in between. It was a large garage that could accommodate 2,800 cars. It had steel columns, precast concrete girders, prestressed concrete floor beams and cast-in-place concrete topping. Since the structure was a conglomeration of concrete and steel, I had to develop some unique connections, which was particularly challenging due to the seismic requirements. The fact that I didn’t have a background in building structures helped because it allowed me to consider unconventional connection designs and I came up with an approach that worked.
Another early project was the Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York. We were the prime design consultant on that project and were responsible for all design disciplines. Here’s where my aerospace background came in handy; I knew all about designing to resist fatigue, particularly when it comes to connections, where you can develop cracks in welds. That was a concern with the tram towers design, which would involve many cycles of loading. A couple of years ago, before we started the recent renovation of the tram, we did an inspection of all three towers. They didn’t find one cracked weld after some 30 years, which was proof that we did the right thing.
Manny Velivasakis and Cuoco on site in New York’s Times Square.
How did you get involved in the Forensics side of the business?
Concurrent with my design work, I was working on an investigation at Rockland County Community College with Richard. They were building a large space frame roof over the field house and the connections were bending. A lot of other things were happening as well. We were called in to analyze what was going wrong and figure out how to fix it.
At the time, in the 1970s, we were known as structural design engineers, but we’d squeeze investigation jobs in when they came our way. Investigations weren’t a big part of the business. Then in 1978, the Hartford (Conn.) Civic Center roof collapsed. It was all over the news and we got the job. A few of us went up there and started looking into the cause of the collapse. That job really put us on the map as investigating engineers. As a result, we started to get more investigation work, and I got involved in a lot of it. I found the Performance work interesting, but I was also still designing buildings, including the company’s first skyscrapers: the 40-story One Tampa City Center in Tampa, Fla. and the 42-story Continental Center, now known as 180 Maiden Lane in Lower Manhattan. By the early 1980s, we were getting enough investigation work that we decided to set up a separate group and I volunteered to manage it. We put together a small core team that included Manny Velivasakis and Bob Nacheman. If there was a major job, we’d pull in other people from the company to help us out. We were known as the “investigations group”; it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that we took on the name LZA Technology.
What were your most memorable projects?
I would have to put the World Trade Center emergency response at the top of the list. For the first two weeks, Dave Peraza and I were rotating on-site management duties because it was important to have continuity. I took the day shift, which was 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but you really needed to get there a few hours earlier and stay a few hours later. This was the most important job I ever worked on and probably will ever work on. You really can’t compare it to any other Thornton Tomasetti job.
The Roosevelt Island Tramway was also memorable. How many people get to design a cable car system that transports 125 people at a time, all in an urban setting? The Logan airport garage was also interesting because it was unique in the way that the structure was put together. So was One Tampa City Center.
On the Forensics side, the L’Ambiance Plaza building collapse in Bridgeport, Conn, was like a Sherlock Holmes case. There was a pile of rubble and we had to reconstruct what had happened. We were on the site 24/7 for eight days, which enabled us to document pieces as they were being removed, re-create the configuration of the building at the time of the collapse and determine the cause of the collapse.
What made you decide to become an engineer? My father was a foreman for a concrete foundation contractor, in charge of locating and laying out building foundations. Every night, he’d lay out his foundation drawings and color in the work that had been done that day and plan out what needed to be done the following day. I used to watch him, and he looked like he enjoyed his work. I thought about a career in the building industry, and being good in math and science was the clincher. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an architect or an engineer. In college, I really liked the analytical aspects, so I decided to become an engineer. My son also became an engineer. Maybe he was inspired by the same thing that inspired me: a father who enjoyed his work.
Cuoco served as project manager for the firm’s first two high-rise buildings.
What do you think is going to be the most important trend for this industry moving forward?
The evolution of the way documents are delivered. The days where you have drawings and specifications that span hundreds of pages are quickly coming to an end. We will be delivering a project on a CD or over an extranet, with the same model to be used for the design, fabrication and scheduling. This is happening now, but it is being done on a small percentage of projects.
Because of things like building information modeling and integrated project delivery, there is going to be increasingly close collaboration between designers and builders. I have done a number of design-build projects and those have been the most successful with the least number of problems or claims. You are working hand in hand with other members of the building team to get the project built in the most efficient way possible. It’s evident that the industry is moving in this direction.
One of the things that we promote here, and I hope this never changes, is that we don’t rely solely on the computer. Graduates coming out of school today can run circles around the old guys like me, but they really need to understand the behavior of structures. We encourage people to do a hand calculation first so they know what the rough answer will be before it comes out of the computer. This way if it comes out drastically different, you know there is something wrong somewhere. I’ve been involved in many investigations where major problems were caused by blunders that could have been avoided by doing a simple hand calculation. People didn’t look at how structures behave as opposed to just punching in numbers, getting the output and assuming it’s right. It’s really about checking your work, and with what we do, that’s really important.
Cuoco was elected president in 2002 and appointed CEO in 2007.
What advice do you have for young engineers?
Do your job responsibly. You should really care about what you do. This is not a 9 to 5 job and if you think it is, you should probably be doing something else. From the day I started with the firm, I did my job as if I was an owner of the company. I did whatever I thought was the right thing to do for the company. I met my deadlines, even if it meant working through the night. This is hard work and there’s a lot of pressure, not just deadline pressure, but the pressure of knowing that if you make a mistake, people could get hurt. You can never lose sight of that. You have to do your job responsibly, and check your work. We have in-house QA/QC procedures to help guard against mistakes, but you shouldn’t rely on someone else to catch your mistakes. You should just think and behave like you are part of the company, and eventually you could be an owner of the company. So be reliable, responsible for the work that you do and feel like a part of this firm. Someday, that hard work could pay off and you could be a principal. It can happen. Just look at me.
— Cynthia Hoffman, Editor
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