Coastal Engineering Keeps Pace With Changing Environment

By Carol K. Dumas

Cape Cod is constantly in flux. Since glaciers created the sandy peninsula more than 10,000 years ago, winds and waves have been shaping, reshaping, and essentially redefining its landscape, often in devastating ways. Storm waves break through barrier beaches and erode shoreline, impacting coastal properties and traditional livelihoods such as boating and fishing. Human influence has also altered the region, affecting entire ecosystems.

It’s a precarious balance between man and nature here, but finding that balance is a challenge embraced by Coastal Engineering. Since its founding more than 40 years ago, the company has taken an innovative approach to finding solutions that balance the need for human economic development while protecting the fragile environment.

“With engineering, there are things that are tried and true, but it’s important to adapt them for modern use with innovative technologies,” says John Bologna, a professional engineer and current CEO of the locally owned company based in Orleans.

The company was founded by the late Thomas “Will” Joy in 1991, an MIT grad who at first went into the construction business after moving to the Cape from the Boston area.

“Will saw more demand on the engineering side of things,” says Bologna, who joined the firm in 1998. “He started off as a design-build company with a focus on site development, but as new building codes and land use regulations became more stringent, there was a greater demand for engineering and permitting, so the company’s focus shifted.”

That focus changed dramatically after the break in Chatham’s North Beach in 1987, when the company found itself more involved in saving critical marine infrastructure by designing shorefront protection systems for projects adversely affected by drastic changes along the shoreline.

Today, the employee-owned company has 38 employees and three offices (Orleans, Nantucket and Sandwich) who handle projects on Cape Cod, the Islands and the southeastern Massachusetts.

Coastal Engineering’s mission is to provide solutions for the benefit of its clients and community. Its clients include design professionals, developers, property managers, contractors, government agencies, residential homeowners, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Its services include civil, structural, and marine engineering; land surveying, environmental permitting, technical services, and wastewater treatment plant operation and maintenance.

Innovation is the nature of the beast in engineering and for Coastal, a key to its growth. One example was incorporating helical piles into a bulkhead project on Pleasant Bay in Orleans in 1991. Although the helical piles were being used in other parts of the country, it was the first use of these piles as tie back anchors on Cape Cod and in Massachusetts.

“It was significant because the helical piles are now a well-recognized and established technology used for anchorage of bulkheads, retaining walls, for underpinning existing structures, and for flood resistant building foundations, but at the time, no one else was using them” Bologna says.

As the Cape changed over the years through human development and naturally occurring events, Coastal Engineering’s business evolved to meet new demands.

“Development impacts require more intensive engineering analysis and design thought to address issues such as climate change, water quality, and coastal resiliency, while at the same time meeting the demands of the community in terms of providing affordable housing and maintenance of public infrastructure” Bologna explains.

Another area that Coastal Engineering has pioneered on Cape Cod is the use of innovative/alternative wastewater treatment technologies to reduce the levels of nitrogen discharged into the groundwater.

According to the Cape’s regional planning authority, Cape Cod Commission, approximately 85 percent of homes on Cape Cod use individual on-site Title 5 septic systems, and nitrogen from those systems have created a crisis in the Cape’s water bodies, threatening animal and plant species, adversely impacting swimming, boating, and aquaculture.

Following a settlement between the Conservation Law Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency’s to address excess nitrogen in the Cape’s waterways, the Cape Cod 15 towns were charged with development strategies to address nitrogen polluted waterways. Led Cape Cod Commission changed its  adaptive management plan and allowed for a variety of interventions to improve water quality of the regional embayments, including innovative/alternative wastewater treatment technologies.

Many of the company’s site development projects, including local commercial and educational facilities as well as multi-family housing, utilize innovative on-site wastewater treatment technologies to meet the community’s environmental regulatory requirements.

“We’re always looking at creative ways to use technology to achieve our sustainability goals. With any new or re-development project, we want it to be as low-impact as possible,” says Bologna. “A lot of older developments have antiquated systems that have to be updated with mitigation provided to lessen the impact on the natural resources. We consider incorporating ‘green’ technologies where possible and work with our colleagues in the landscape design business to blend ecological design and bio-engineering principals in our designs.”

One promising area, Bologna adds, is phyto-technologies, which use natural plantings to uptake and sequester certain contaminants that would otherwise be discharged into the environment.

Drones are another the company can use technology in its projects.

“Drones are very useful in gathering large fields of data and allow our surveyors to map and document shoreline conditions for asset management, flood risk assessments, and shoreline stabilization projects.”

Coastal also works to preserve the region’s rich stock of historic structures. The company recently completed a structural stabilization project of Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, which included installing a new internal structural support system while preserving the historical integrity of the inner stair/ramp system via a state-of-the-art polymer fiber exoskeleton system.

Coastal’s work with Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum is continuing with the Bradford Street Access Project, which is designed to create more of a cohesive downtown Provincetown by connecting Bradford Street to the monument grounds via an inclined elevator. Visitors to the monument atop High Pole Hill currently must either drive to the limited parking area, or climb the steep hill to reach the tourist attraction. The inclined elevator is similar to a cable trams found at many European ski resorts (and in some hilly areas like Taormina in Sicily) with an enclosed cabin that will carry up to 16 people 80 feet up to the monument. The design includes landscaping and a quaint covered pavilion that is in keeping with historic character of town, Bologna says. Construction is set to begin this year, with completion anticipated in 2020.


While its work has included may recognizable building projects, the coast remains the heart of the company’s countless projects. Recent projects have included providing structural engineering services for a new harbormaster’s office, garage/maintenance, and café building at Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich, a site within a flood zone; guiding Eastward Ho! Country Club through an extensive permitting process to ensure the links course’s shorefront protection; and creating a pedestrian walkway between two beaches along Weymouth’s Fore River, separated by an inaccessible rocky coastline abutting a steep, heavily vegetated coastal bank.

“With any waterfront project, it’s important to understand the coastal processes and the associated environmental regulatory requirements,” notes Bologna. “While some waterfront infrastructure projects require hard coastal engineering structures, we are seeing more of a push for ‘living shorelines’ that are designed to adapt to sea level changes with more natural processes.”