By Megan Berger
Meet Isabella Franks, a Kiwi engineer who’s been managing the construction of a skyscraper on the Hudson Yards project in New York City, aka the biggest private real estate development in US history.
Bella studied structural engineering at the University of Canterbury. She then worked in Auckland for AECOM as a design engineer for about five years, doing a mixture of commercial and industrial projects as well as recovery work after the Christchurch earthquakes.
She and her now-husband were craving a change, and thought that New York City would be the perfect mix of opportunity and excitement. “Working abroad gives you so many experiences that you may not get in New Zealand,” says Bella. “we’ve had an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Bella’s opportunity to work on the amazingly ambitious Hudson Yards project has certainly made the move from home worth it. “It was essentially a rail storage yard on the west side of Manhattan, taking up several blocks of valuable land, and our private developer bought the air-rights and is building an entire new high-rise neighbourhood above it,” says Bella. “It’s about 28 acres, so it’s huge. A platform was built above[the railroad] and then we’ve constructed a whole lot of towers and public space on top.” It’s no small feat, and in total, it’s slated to represent about $37 billion worth of infrastructure work.
“My role on the project for the last two and a half years has been managing the structural build of one of the towers, ‘35 Hudson Yards’ or colloquially called ‘the Equinox Tower’,” says Bella. “It’s a 72 storey mixed-use commercial, residential and retail space that’s over 300 metres tall with about 93,000 square metres of space.”
“I came into it thinking they’re so behind in some methods of construction, yet they’re exceptionally advanced in other areas.”
Working in a foreign country on projects of such scale can often mean encountering a steep learning curve when it comes to rules and policies. Bella calls the complexity of dealing with projects of this scale and logistics in a city of this size the “New York factor”. “There are so many different constraints you have to consider with local, state and federal regulation that you need to stay on top of. New York still has a pretty strong union force, which adds some interesting dynamics and complexities,” says Bella. “I came into it thinking they’re so behind in some methods of construction, yet they’re exceptionally advanced in other areas.” One of those areas she’s seen great innovation in is the quality of building material and the speed in which buildings are built. “The concrete strength that we’re dealing with here in the US is, I would say, four times the strength that I was designing with in New Zealand. As the tower was being built, we were averaging a floor every two days. With, you know, 200 guys on a very small footprint building like crazy on top of each other.”
In addition to managing intense careers in a new country, Bella and her husband have recently welcomed their first child into the world. In a country with no federal paid maternity leave and much less annual leave compared to other similar countries, the prospect of having a child and balancing a challenging role can be daunting. Lucky for Bella, her experience as an expectant mother was a positive one. “I stopped working at Hudson Yards with six weeks until my due date, and started a new project on Park Avenue. My company was amazingly supportive in this move. ” says Bella. “So, for the last four weeks I was working on this exciting new project even though now I’m out on maternity leave. To me, that was essentially a nod saying, yep, we’re not influenced by your pregnancy at all. Make it work. And I was really appreciative of that.”
In terms of diversity, Bella notes that the gender split she’s encountered hasn’t been much different from what she experienced at home in New Zealand. Like many places around the world, women have yet to make up more of the engineering and construction space. But Bella hopes that will start to change. “If you’re considering a career in these fields, go for it. It’s such a rewarding career path with a true feeling of accomplishment as you work through problems and you’re creating tangible results,” says Bella.
Bella encourages those on the fence about moving abroad to take the leap and consider the great benefits to be had. “The biggest benefit is seeing my experience and knowledge base grow amazingly. I think all the new innovations that they’re using to build these super skyscrapers in the US are very unique and that knowledge is priceless.”