Ancient Techniques in Modern Design: The Roman Arch at T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Vista Ranch

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Arches support a curved bridge on T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Vista Ranch in Roberts County, Texas. The endurance of the Roman arch testifies to the versatility of ancient craftsmen and the continuing purity of their archaic design well into the 21st century. The reflections of the arches in the water surrounding the main house in the Texas Panhandle ranch reminds us that that the property sits on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, an age-old underground reservoir that extends across the Great Plains states and provides a water-rich environment that runs parallel to the Canadian River. Off to the right are patches of cattails and reeds, evidence of the seventy miles of well water lines that provide for the thousands of quail, turkeys, and mule and whitetail deer that call this unusual West Texas oasis their home.

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This aqueduct carries water from an upper lake on the ranch to a waterfall and the lake below.

Dallas architect Steve Chambers was enlisted by T. Boone Pickens (May 22, 1928–September 11, 2019) and master builder Tommy Ford Construction to create the schematic design for a bridge and aqueduct on the Mesa Vista Ranch. The aqueduct and bridge are supported by stone arch construction. The structural design was provided by Pete Hennessey, P.E. who recommended that the project use historic construction techniques employed by early civilizations, and whose techniques remain relevant today. These types of projects are only possible when all of the professionals involved work successfully as a team from the planning stages and forward into the project. The Roman arches are similar to the sketches that Texas architect, Steve Chambers, created in architecture school (shown below, right). Pickens’ efforts at water and wildlife conservation on Mesa Vista Ranch can be seen in the video below.

An integral part of the curriculum of an architecture student was the study of the ancient builders, buildings, and construction techniques of the Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman and other early civilizations. Many years after his days in college, Steve Chambers was able to travel to see some of these architectural wonders, experiencing their scale and magnitude in situ. Chambers Architects is still awed at the endurance of the Roman arches.

While arches have existed for roughly 4,000 years, the Romans were the first to effectively employ their use in the construction of bridges, monuments and buildings. The ingenious arch design allows the weight of structures to be evenly distributed along various supports, preventing massive buildings like the Roman Colosseum from crumbling under their own weight. Early engineers improved on arches by flattening the shape to create a segmental arch, repeating them at various intervals. This allowed for the construction of stronger supports in bridges and aqueducts, lending to their ability to create longer spans.

An example of the falsework centering used to support an arch for a bridge under construction.

Mesa Vista Ranch: T. Boone Pickens

Below are sketches by Texas architect, Steve Chambers, of early arches and centering (shoring) techniques from the Roman and Gothic periods. Also pictured are examples of modern arches and modern centering done by Tommy Ford Construction at Mesa Vista Ranch. The black and white photo is of the 1911 Monroe Street bridge construction in Spokane, Washington.

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