Family of engineering graduates shares insight on billion-dollar project

Nancy Patton-Ferrell (BS ’80), principal/vice president of Patrell Engineering Group, Inc., delivered a lecture to an auditorium full of students, faculty and friends on Thursday, Nov. 9. Patton-Ferrell, a civil engineering graduate, presented her address as part of the two-day Advancement Council for Engineering and Technology (ACET) Conference.

Patton-Ferrell has over 30 years of civil engineering experience, specializing in the design of faux rockwork for pools, fountains and amusement parks. In 1991, Patton-Ferrell and her husband Doug (BS ’78) founded Patrell Engineering Group, and the couple continue to operate the business today, along with their children. Three of their children, Monica (BS ’04, MS ’05), John (BS ’08, MS ’09) and Kirsty (BS ’11, MS ’12), work with Patton-Ferrell at Patrell, and John and Kirsty even helped deliver portions of her presentation on Thursday.

Despite its small size, Patrell Engineering Group manages to compete remarkably well in its industry, even against massive firms of 500 to 800 engineers.

“[The larger firms] have no idea how big we are (which is not big), but we produce stuff a lot faster and more efficiently,” Patton-Ferrell said. She explained that, at times, the family of engineers has to work around the clock to meet deadlines—and they are willing to do so. However, they also recognize the importance of rest and recuperation, and the occasional, spontaneous family vacation helps keep the team motivated.

Of course, Doug and Nancy Ferrell have not always enjoyed the assistance of their children in operating the family business. Patton-Ferrell shared her experience in the late 1990s, well before her children graduated from BYU, designing the extensive rockwork for Grizzly River Run, an attraction in Disney’s California Adventure theme park. She remembered the relative simplicity of engineering rockwork structures in those days.

“Paper, pencil and a calculator. Those were the main tools,” Ferrell said. “There weren’t any computer-operated rebar-bending machines, it was just the pure, large-scale art of some guys in overalls and hardhats.”

Needless to say, engineering projects these days require a little more sophistication. Patton-Ferrell recently worked for Disney to design its new, billion-dollar attraction Pandora—The World of Avatar. She explained that Disney Imagineers created incredibly accurate models that represented literally every detail of the final attraction, “down to every tree, shrub and neon mushroom.” After having painstakingly created these precise models, Imagineers performed a 3D scan, producing a digitized shape that Patrell Engineering Group could then use to create a design for the steel framework that would support the rock structures.

“We had our rockwork design system developed, we were moving along well, making our deadlines, and we were even a little ahead on our timeline. Then one day, I got a phone call, and a lightning bolt came out of the sky that would rock our world.”

That lightning bolt was a request from Disney for Patrell to design 725 unique “show vines” that were meant to hide or mask the support structures of Pandora’s floating mountains. The creative team looked to Patrell to find a solution that would make the vines flexible enough to sway in the breeze, but strong enough to withstand the winds of a tropical storm or hurricane—something that no engineer had ever attempted in an outdoor, hurricane-prone environment before.

“What do you say in this situation?” Patton-Ferrell asked.

Inspired by the “sky is the limit” mindset that Disney calls “moonshot thinking,” Patton-Ferrell decided to accept this seemingly impossible assignment, in addition to the rockwork design. After months of hard work and innovative thinking, Patrell produced an effective design that would later beautifully withstand the winds of Hurricane Irma.

During this process, the Patrell team used several different software programs, such as Navisworks and Rhinoceros 3D. Multiple times throughout the course of her lecture, Patton-Ferrell stressed the importance of learning as many computer design tools as possible. She urged students to actively look for ways to enhance the technology portion of their education in order to better prepare themselves for the workplace.

“Technology continues to move forward at an incredible pace, and you will very often have to adapt to new programs—sometimes with very little time to do it. That is the fact of the modern engineer,” she said. “You can’t rely on the few programs you learned in college to be all that you need in your career. However, the knowledge and skill acquired by learning those few well can often translate into other programs.”

Alongside this advice, Patton-Ferrell made sure to emphasize that scholastic struggles will not define any student’s ability to have a successful career. As someone who had to retake calculus, she offered herself as living proof of this fact.

The trio of Ferrells also stated that developing people skills will be of equal importance to technology skills in laying the founding for future success. Working on a billion-dollar project requires an exhausting amount of coordination and conference calls with engineers and designers across the entire country. In such an environment, solid people skills are a requirement for success.

“When it’s all said and done, successful construction and engineering is all about people building strong personal relationships,” Kirsty Wouden said. “That forms the glue of the design and construction team, so they can solve the problems and deal with the stresses of a massive project and a relentless schedule.”

In closing, Patton-Ferrell emphasized the importance of finding the proper balance between work and the other demands of life. She suggested that the key to maintaining equilibrium is to put your trust in God by serving Him first and foremost.

“As you put the Lord first, He will help to direct the path of your career in ways that you couldn’t possibly imagine as you sit here today as a student.”

Video of the lecture can be watched online with a BYU log-in. 

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