Todd Neal Talks Change and Tradition in a Growing Maine

In the interest of touching on subjects of urban planning and responsible development, I spoke with Todd Neal, professional engineer and partner at Becker Structural Engineers in Portland—the largest structural-focused engineering firm in the state, which works on projects that range from boathouses to bridges—to talk about the structures that he helps create. Our conversation turned to parking, given the increased demand for it and the substantial work he does around the state and beyond in creating these structures.

portland-urban-planning.jpg

Can you give us the broad strokes of what you do? 

TN: We have a talented and dedicated staff of engineers and support staff who make it possible for me to do the things that keep a company running. I am generally the principal in charge of all of our parking projects. I also maintain involvement in the building side and am fortunate to be involved with the design of the proposed Engineering Education and Design Center for the University of Maine. As a graduate, it’s especially rewarding to contribute. 

The designs for parking structures seem to be getting more and more creative and thoughtful. I’ve seen some really dramatic designs in other parts of the country. How much say do you have in the design of these structures? 

TN: Parking garages are generally a configuration of exposed structural elements, so we are active participants in the design. There are many remarkable garage designs using unique materials, light, and forms. I believe that this can be taken too far. If you drive by and say that’s a striking design but I don’t know where to park, you have defeated the purpose and function of the building. A parking structure can be a great piece of architecture without trying to hide what it is. 

Can you tell me anything about how the landscape has changed, the jobs you get now versus when you began 20 years ago? How has Maine changed over time during your career? 

TN: So much has changed over the course of my career. I feel like I was one of the last to start my college career learning how to draft with pencils. Now we have 3-D programs and virtual reality. Computers have certainly increased our ability to apply the science in what we do, but they can’t replace the understanding of how things go together. As we lose the older generations of builders, many of whom were unofficial engineers and architects who decided to pick up a hammer instead of a T-square, our understanding of how things go together becomes even more critical. 

I am not sure Maine has changed enough over my career, and I have a concern that we are falling further behind our neighbors. We [Becker Structural Engineers] are currently growing, and there is a significant amount of work in the state, and we are fortunate to be involved with many of these projects. However, we [Maine] still have a significant brain drain, and it is difficult for us to compete with salaries and benefits offered out of state. It will be difficult for us to grow with just the people who want to be here; we need to find a way to be competitive with the rest of New England and the U.S. with compensation and let the beauty of this state be the icing on the cake. 

I was born and raised in Maine. My wife is from Maine and most of our families and extended families are in Maine. Maine is not an easy place to make a living, and I think we have been fortunate to find good jobs, make a comfortable living, and raise a family here. Maine is unique with its combination of the coast, lakes, rivers, and mountains. Having traveled to the West Coast and through the Midwest of both the U.S. and Canada, it seems like you never seem to find a combination of all these quite like we have here. I‘m not sure I would say that I stayed here; I had little reason to leave. And I mean that in a very positive way. 

Susan Grisanti