It’s a Sunday afternoon at the end of February and workers are welding the last two deck segments of the Macdonald Bridge into place.

This work is a milestone in the Big Lift, which has captured the city’s imagination, and often frustration, since the summer of 2015. To honour a job done well and safely, the project’s ironworkers secured a small pine tree to a pole just along the bridge’s edge. It’s an old tradition called “topping out” in which builders place a tree when the last piece of a build is complete.

Daniel Grant is on duty. He’s been at the bridge site since 6 a.m. and will wrap up his shift by 6 p.m. He’s a structural engineer with Dartmouth-based Harbourside Engineering Consultants, a subconsultant for COWI Engineering, and a site representative for the Big Lift. Grant, 33, shares the responsibility of that job with Erin Pieterse, 30,  bridge engineer with COWI.

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Daniel Grant (left) and Erin Pieterse. Photo: Randal Tomada

“Bridges are great for structural engineers because you get to do basically all of the design,” Grant says. “So you don’t have to share much with architects. That’s why I like it. You can be involved in the whole process and design things from the ground up.”

Grant has an undergrad and a masters’ degree in engineering from Dalhousie. Pieterse, who grew up in Ontario, has a Bachelor of Applied Science from the University of Waterloo. They both excelled at science and math.

Grant got involved with the Big Lift in 2011. He spent a few months in Vancouver learning about the similar (and pioneering) project on the Lions Gate Bridge there and worked on the design for the Big Lift. Pieterse joined the project in 2014. Their job is to make sure all of the work done is correct and on time.

“It’s not a project where it gets shut down six months to a year,” Pieterse says. “It has to be safe for use every day. When work is done, it has to be ready to the public to go across, which is not typical for a construction project.”

Since most of the work has happened at night, Pieterse and Grant rotate shifts, one working day shifts for a few weeks, and then on the site during evenings, and then switching again. They kept in constant contact with each other, confirming every aspect of the work was complete.

On a busy night, there are up to 60 people, including ironworkers, safety officers, and contractors on the bridge doing work. The last two segments represent, too, the skill and precision learned by the team over the course of this project and 46 deck segments. Grant says it took about 48 hours to place the last two deck segments into place. In 2015, the first segment took 60 hours.

Grant remembers when workers removed that first segment on the Dartmouth side.

“We were on site and we were monitoring things, but at the same time we could stand on the edge of the deck and there was a hole in the bridge that hadn’t been there since it was built,” Grant says. “It was strange to see a 20-metre hole in the bridge and for it to be filled up again.”

Their lives have revolved around the Big Lift. “When you work on projects far away, it looks cool in the picture and maybe you go to visit, but this is something that’s part of our daily lives,” Pieterse says. “We’ve been caught by the, ‘Is the bridge open or closed?’ too. The construction affects our lives, too.”

Jon Eppell is the chief engineer for the Big Lift. He meets with Pieterse and Grant weekly and checks in with them during evenings and weekends. He says he and Pieterse joked about their early morning phone calls. “There were a couple of times she had to call me at 2 or 3 in the morning, just to keep me aware of what was happening, so I could prep my team,” he says.

Eppell says he thinks Pieterse and Grant both learned about working with different people, with different working styles, and the importance of doing a job right. “I think they really understood that beforehand,” Eppell says. “I think they have an appreciation more of all the bits and pieces that go into making this happen. It’s not just structural engineers that are working on this project.”

The Big Lift may remain in Haligonians’ memories, but Eppell hopes the engineers can do the rest of their work unnoticed. “Optimistically, I hope that everybody goes back to treating us like they used to, which is to take us for granted,” he says. “That we’re reliable, dependable, and we largely stay out of their way.”

The final segments are long sealed into the bridge, but work continues. Workers have to complete the sidewalk and bike lane. They need to replace the hangers connecting the deck and the orange cable. The orange main cable is in good condition, but can’t be easily replaced if needed. The crew will use machines to dehumidify the cable to help prevent corrosion.

When the Big Lift is complete, Grant is moving on to Harbourside’s offices in Hamilton, Ont. Pieterse will stay in Halifax and work on other bridges in the area doing design, rehab work, and inspections.

“For me, I’ve grown a new appreciation for teamwork and communication, because it’s a massive project,” Pieterse says. “Working different schedules, sharing work. Daniel and I are only two of the people, but there are other people on site, too.”

Grant continues: “There is no other opportunity to work on bridges this size in the Maritimes, other than the Confederation Bridge. “These two bridges [including the A. Murray MacKay], if you’re a bridge engineer, these are the ones to work on.”

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