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Young Project Manager Reconstructs 200-Year-Old Chinese House in Massachusetts

Yin Yu Tang means "the desire to shelter many future generations." But for Natalia Cardelino, chief structural engineer and project manager for the Peabody-Essex Museum, Yin Yu Tang means "fabulous project."

Cardelino, a 30-year-old senior structural engineer for Richmond So Engineering , New York City, worked with Ove Arup & Partners in Boston on the Peabody Essex-Museum renovation project. Over the past six years, Cardelino has worked on transporting the two-story Chinese home called Yin Yu Tang, built 200 years ago, from China to Salem, Mass. The house was once located in the rural village of Huang Cun, approximately 250 miles southwest of Shanghai, and is now being reconstructed as an adjunct to the Peabody-Essex Museum, where it will be put on display after construction of the museum has finished. Following its $125 million renovation, the museum is slated to open in May and will exhibit centuries-old houses from around the world.

Nancy Berliner, the museum's curator of Chinese Art and Culture, in 1996 found the house up for sale. Berliner made connections with the regional administration in China and the Peabody-Essex Museum, and in May 1997 she was able to transfer the house to Salem–with a few challenges.

The building had to be taken apart and then reconstructed on the museum site. But under Massachusetts law, the building was considered new construction and had to meet current building codes. Besides being rebuilt in the traditional manner of houses from the Huizhou region, builders also worked to Chinese feng shui principles, to bring the structure into harmony with natural forces.

This required not only the usual group of engineers, architects, construction workers, museum reps, carpenters, and masons on the project, but also their Chinese equivalents; two to three carpenters and masons as well as their translators were invited from China to work on the house. Filling out the project's staff were a fire protection engineer, an electrical engineer and a plumbing engineer.


Cardelino joined the project in 1999, about four years after graduating from Cornell University with a masters' degree in civil engineering, and after having worked three and a half years for Arup in London and New York. Before Yin Yu Tang she had mainly done design work, but by this past September she was chief structural engineer and coordinator of the design team.

Cardelino says she was in the "right place at the right time." She says, "I was relocating up to Boston, so I was the convenient person," she says.

Cardelino credits her success to mentoring. Richman So, the Yin Yu Tang construction manager with whom she is now employed, "showed me how [to work] so that I was able to take over as project manager and structural engineer" once he left.

What was fascinating about the buildings for Cardelino was her involvement in meeting snow, wind and earthquake codes of Massachusetts. She also was able to do something relatively few structural engineers do: she not only got to work with wood and masonry, but actually got to recreate the tables used for measurements of these materials.


Although Cardelino left the project recently to relocate to New York, Yin Yu Tang holds a special place in her heart. She still has a hand in its progress, as she continues to work on the house, albeit as a consultant based in New York.

As a former professor in the building technology masters program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardelino also has some words of advice for emerging engineers and contractors. "Once you have experience, you're not intimidated," she says. "Suffer through because they'll respect you."

She says a common feeling as a young engineer is having to prove yourself. "I was incredibly lucky that for the first two years [working for Ove Arup] I got to do mostly design work." Once you begin working in the field, according to Cardelino, there is a subtle difference: "You notice that they're not treating you like they treat others."


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