Home > Our Stories > In the Field: A Q&A with Mass Concrete Expert, John Gajda

In the Field: A Q&A with Mass Concrete Expert, John Gajda

Written by: Nathan Gundlach

Engineer John Gadja has over 25 years' experience in working with mass concrete. As the senior principal engineer of materials and mechanics at CTL Group, he served as just one of sophomore Nathan Gundlach's supervisors during his internship with the company. After leading a seminar on mass concrete for the CEEES department, Gajda shared more about how he got his start in the business. 


Gundlach: How did you initially get involved and interested in mass concrete? 

Gajda: I fell into it! I was not overly busy with what they originally intended for me to do at CTL when they hired me, so I just started talking to the principal engineers. One of them liked my background as a ceramic engineer and told me they were working on projects with ceramic heat, so I fell into it that way. 

Gundlach: What were you initially hired to do?

Gajda: I responded to an ad in the paper to be a protégée of one of the older guys that was getting close to retirement, he did concrete masonry and brick masonry. As soon as I got to CTL he decided to stay, so I quickly became available for other jobs.

Gundlach: Did you seek out a mentor at CTL Group?

Gajda: A guy named Dave Stark who worked in alkaline silicon reactivity took me under his wing. I helped him with his publications. He had a lot of publications he was doing for the Federal Highway Administration at the time. A woman named Martha Van Geem also took me under her wing for the heat stuff. Plus, I had a great manager. He used to walk around saying, "Are you busy? Are you overly-busy?" 

Gundlach: You've worked on a lot of projects for CTL Group, which projects are you most proud of?

Gajda: The Midtown tunnel in Norfolk, Virginia. I designed the heating system for some base labs that they cast walls on top of because we were trying to eliminate cracking in the walls. I had a cooling pipe system in the walls and I had a heating system in the base slab. That was after we did everything that we could to take the heat and thermal movement out of the concrete. That was one of the more challenging projects.

Gundlach: Is there a project you enjoyed working on the most?

Gajda: They’re all fun. Working on the Ohio River Bridge was probably the most fun. As you drive into Louisville, Kentucky, you can drive across the Ohio River and there is a big bridge on the east side. It’s a cable-stayed bridge. Right as you go into Kentucky you drive into a tunnel that goes under some million dollar houses. That was enjoyable for a number of reasons. It was a tunnel, which we don’t do a lot of, tied with a bridge, so you got to see a lot. The contractor relied on us a lot.

If I could pick another one, there was a project called the Holtwood Dam, which was a new hydroelectric generating station up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That one was nice because the engineer would defer to me. He would say, "If John as the thermal control engineer says that is the way to go, then that is the way to go." So I had a lot of leeway changing the project specifications, while still being safe. 

Gundlach: What is your advice for getting past challenges in your career?

Gajda: Keep working at them, never get frustrated. You will get frustrated but never get to the point where you give up. Keep working at it and if you need an extension on the deadline do not try to make something work just to make it work. Get an extension on a deadline if you have to and keep picking away at it. 

There is a lot of dead time on your drive into work where you can think about various things. I might be reviewing the day in my head as I go home and not getting anywhere with the problem. You might just be thinking about it as you are falling asleep or driving back into work the next day and say, "Oh, that's how I can do that." Or talk to other people, they have a lot of knowledge. 

Gundlach: What college classes do you think most prepared you for the field?

Gajda: Thermo-dynamics, but that's because I work with temperatures. What also prepared me was my master's degree because I worked on high temperature concretes but introduced me to concrete. You typically do not see this class required for a civil engineering degree but it would not hurt to take it. 

Basic materials classes are going to help if you are a structural engineer so you can get a better understanding of the materials, which are everything. A typical structural engineer will say they need a modulus in the wall, or they need something to be compressive strength but they do not realize how difficult or how unattainable something might be. 

Gundlach: What do you look for in potential employees who are right out of school?

Gajda: I look for smart people. We are consultants, so we look for people who are outgoing because you always have to communicate with your clients. I was not one of those people but I had to learn to be outgoing and to communicate. We also take people who are hard workers and who have great grades. Unfortunately, if you have a B- or less for your overall GPA, you probably will not be considered. 

Gundlach: What advice do you have for students who are trying to discern which way they want to go in the field?

Gajda: The best thing to do is some co-ops or internships. You can never start too early and that gets you out there so you can easily feel your way around and see what you like and what you do not like. 

John Gajda serves as the senior principal engineer of materials and mechanics for CTL Group, a consulting engineering and materials science firm. With over 25 years of experience, Gajda has helped contractors, owners, and engineers with their mass concrete needs in more than 700 projects across the globe. 



Gundlach

Nathan Gundlach is a sophomore civil engineering student. After graduating, he hopes to work in the industry before attending graduate school. Gundlach is a member of the Notre Dame Marching Band, as well as the orchestra and percussion ensemble. He is also involved in Iron Sharpens Iron.