The Problem Solvers
Structural Engineering Technologies, P.C.: The expertise and resolve to take on the riskiest of challenges
George J. Cambourakis was born to be an engineer. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering, he proceeded to teach himself everything there was to know about foundation and geotechnical engineering.
After a decade of work with one of the top structural engineering firms in the industry, he went out on his own, forming Structural Engineering Technologies, P.C. in 1989. Through the years, he’s found like-minded individuals and built a company that is as broad as it is deep in terms of capabilities.
In the New York/New Jersey area, his team is known for taking on the difficult, the challenging and sometimes the seemingly impossible. Perhaps most impressive, Cambourakis has done what few engineering firms have attempted: create a one-stop shop for all things related to structural, geotechnical and foundation engineering, and build a reputation as an engineer who works equally well with owners, architects and contractors.
His story—and his company’s remarkable success—is one that combines continuous curiosity, impressive resolve and a passion that is both vocation and hobby.
The son of Greek immigrants who came to the U.S. after World War II, Cambourakis is proud of the old-fashioned family values and strong work ethic that his parents, particularly his mother, ingrained in him. His father died when Cambourakis was just 4 years old, so it’s his mother who had the most influence on him during his younger years. While working in factories to support herself and her son, she encouraged him to study engineering. He adds, “She would tell me stories when I was very young about how I’d sit for hours trying to draw a crane that was working on a nearby building or construct model houses and bridges with scrap paper. Her proudest moments were when I was accepted to and then graduated from The City College of New York.”
Upon graduation in 1979, he was hired by Thornton Tomasetti, P.C. of New York City. During his employment, he went on to earn his master’s degree in engineering, with an emphasis in structural engineering in 1983 and a professional degree (Ph.D. candidate) in structural engineering from Columbia University by 1989.
In 1989, after 10 years with Thornton Tomasetti, some opportunities arose that would give Cambourakis a chance to work independently. He left, subleased space in Manhattan and opened the doors of Structural Engineering Technologies, P.C., with just one draftsperson employee.
He adds, “Many of my colleagues and friends thought I was crazy to start a company during that recession when there was such high unemployment and limited construction work. But, I thought it was the perfect time, because I firmly believe that the relationships forged during difficult times are the ones that build professional bonds that can last a lifetime. It was a struggle for a while, but we grew steadily and got our name out in the market.”
He took on a range of projects from new structures to building renovations across the five boroughs, New Jersey, Long Island and in Westchester County.
A Deeper Transformation
By 1995, Cambourakis moved his company to Long Island City, located in Queens where he had bought some property. He continued to expand his structural engineering business opportunities, which included a design-build partnership with a local construction firm, adding many years’ worth of valuable construction experience to his company’s capabilities. By 2001, Cambourakis’ company was the engineer-of-record to design-build one of the first condominium projects in Long Island City as the area transitioned from industrial to residential and light commercial.
Cambourakis recalls, “We watched the transformation of Long Island City from our backyard in those early 2000s. Used to be, I could look out my windows and see the entire Manhattan skyline. Now, I see skyscrapers and apartment buildings of Long Island City.”
He and his team continued to work in both the engineering and construction fields for more than 15 years. Cambourakis liked getting involved with the construction side and believes it helped him to become a more detail-oriented engineer. He adds, “Contractors trusted us to design something that could be built; and they knew if there was a problem on the job, we’d be there.”
Cambourakis also recognized that he needed to make a business decision. He could continue to be an engineer in the construction field, or he could follow his passion, which is all things related to structural and foundation engineering.
He explains, “I was somewhat tormented between growing an engineering business or going into construction. It’s very difficult to do both well. I’d deal with the construction side of the business during the day and at night knock out engineering work. I was working 18-hour days. After a while, I realized that engineering was my true passion.”
However, he didn’t want to be just another structural engineering firm. “It dawned on me that most engineering firms are either structural or geotechnical/foundation focused—not both,” he says. “I wanted to be both. I wanted to get involved in structural, foundation and geotechnical challenges that most engineers shy away from because of the high risk.”
"When jobs get stop-work orders, whether because of unsafe subsurface conditions or because they’re not built per design, we get called in.” George J. Cambourakis, President & Chief Structural Engineer, Structural Engineering Technologies, P.C.
Around 2008, Cambourakis set out to learn all he could about foundation design and geotechnical engineering. Largely self-taught in those early days, he also joined foundation and geotechnical associations, such as the Deep Foundations Institute, and absorbed even more knowledge from the top experts in the field.
By 2014, he ran into Fruma Narov, his greatest mentor from his days with Thornton Tomasetti, while working on a job site. As a structural engineer, Narov is one of the foremost experts in concrete and structural analysis technology, actively involved in many professional organizations. She is a past President of the Metropolitan region of the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York and has also served there on the executive board and as a board member. She has also been part of the New York Building Congress and the New York City chapter of the Concrete Industry Board, the Materials Technical Committee of the New York City Department of Buildings and the Women Builders Council.
Cambourakis says, “She is just as passionate as I am about engineering. Right then, we decided to form a partnership within Structural Engineering Technologies. What could be better than having your mentor and longtime friend as a partner?”
In 2016, he hired Rui Guo, a talented professional engineer with a doctorate in geotechnical engineering. The company also started taking on jobs as structural and foundation engineering advisors to contractors.
“There’s an ongoing movement to expand project preconstruction efforts to avoid mistakes on the job,” says Cambourakis. “Our previous experiences working with contractors greatly helps us build effective relationships. We can do it all, from structural engineering to foundations, to providing geotechnical expertise as well as demolition and construction support services for contractors.”
Cambourakis and his team are particularly well known in the New York/New Jersey area as problem solvers. He says, “When jobs get stop-work orders, whether because of unsafe subsurface conditions or because they’re not built per design or jobs that need to be value-engineered, we get called in to help.”
Also in 2016, Cambourakis partnered with a drilling contractor to add soil borings, environmental drilling and soil remediation services to his company’s capabilities. The company is also well versed in the Excavation, Forensic and Concrete Enforcement units of the New York City Department of Buildings and obtaining approvals from the New York City Transit Authority, considered among the most challenging approval processes anywhere in the U.S.
Character and Curiosity
Today, Structural Engineering Technologies is a one-stop shop for all things structural—from soil borings to the support of excavation/geotechnical aspects to the superstructure and demolition side of the industry. Over the last 30+ years, the company has completed commercial, residential, hotel, institutional and industrial building projects, from 3,000 square feet to over 1 million square feet in size.
His team members are experts in structural design of low-rise to high-rise buildings, foundation design, deep foundations and support of excavation systems, drilled pile systems, structural rehabilitation and restoration of existing buildings, building demolition and construction support services. They continue to expand their knowledge base, too. Case in point: the staff is now learning all they can about environmental remediation.
Cambourakis is particularly proud of the people who make up his company, which now numbers 24 engineers, draftsmen and administrative staff. He adds, “Beyond technical knowledge, one of the best things that I learned at my first job was the importance of establishing a family-like atmosphere. I firmly believe that it makes us better engineers and people. I wanted people that fit together—the same curiosity, passion and energy for our career choices. I only hire those that fit our ‘personality’ and are serious about their career—not someone just looking for a job. In return, I give them all the opportunity that I can for their professional growth.”
As a continuous learner himself, it’s no surprise that Cambourakis provides his people opportunities to learn, even beyond tuition reimbursements and support for professional engineering licenses.
“We’re engineers,” says Cambourakis. “We should always be learning something new or improving our skills. All my engineers have direct contact with clients—that’s how they learn. We’re doing something right when our clients feel free to call our project engineers with questions and know that they will get answers.”
He also encourages the cross-sharing of information. He and his team regularly host in-house quality control lectures focusing on project delivery quality, technical issues, client relations and much more. Educational lectures are a great opportunity for the team to demonstrate its knowledge. One recent session focused on new masonry codes, another on key elements of concrete structural drawings for approval through the building department, and another on preparing for the professional engineering licensing exam.
Cambourakis says, “I personally review all major structural plans with my people. It’s a constructive time for my people—the goal is to complete a plan review without me having to use my red pen to mark up the drawings. I can see the steady progress from the first time I do a plan review with a young engineer, to the next time. We’re striving for that perfect set of drawings always.
We’re not just passing information to our clients—we’re creating a work of art.”
He also encourages his team to get out to job sites, to interact with contractors to gain knowledge and experience, to witness their work of art being built—and to have fun.
Cambourakis concludes, “We commemorate all advanced degree graduations and the passing of licensing exams. I believe that we’re friends and family, so we also celebrate birthdays, weddings and births. At our annual children’s holiday party, one of our guys dresses up as Santa so that we can give gifts to the young children of our employees. Between our professional and personal cultures, we’ve created a great working environment, and are excited about the opportunities and challenges ahead. I feel incredibly lucky that my work is my passion as well as my hobby.”