Charlie Carter: The steel sleuth

    Charlie Carter speaking on his favorite topic (the AISC Code of Standard Practice) at the 2009 NASCC: The Steel Conference.

    It’s a rarity in any field lately for one person to stay with one company their entire career, unless their last name appears on business cards. Charlie Carter fits the bill as a rare figure in the world of civil engineering as he has been helping define the standard for steel construction for decades.

    Carter assists in leading the American Institute of Steel Construction through their continual research and reporting on steel related construction – from quality standards and education to research and code and specification development, they’re an integral part of the engineering process.

    Indeed, the seed of engineering curiosity bloomed early in Carter.

    He recalls a family outing when he was a boy where he spoke with his Uncle Bob, who was actually a well-known architect in New Jersey. Robert Cueman suggested that Charlie explore architectural engineering as a possible career path. It was a major that few schools offer, but Carter was eager to put his skills in drawing, mathematics, and science to use, and once he started exploring the major he knew it was right for him to pursue.

    “It’s a little amazing to think that Uncle Bob was successfully conclusive for me in the span of a conversation that probably lasted no more than 10 minutes,” Carter says.

    Passion for learning
    Growing up in a house where both his dad and mom, Charlie and Elizabeth, were teachers, it’s easy to see that Carter had a passion for learning that went beyond just the classroom requirements, although he considers himself the black sheep of his generation as he was the only family member who didn’t follow the family line and become a teacher. Even though Carter had strong interests in specific areas, he often found himself struggling when he wasn’t engaged with the material in high school. However, thanks to the dedication of quite a few teachers, Carter found himself succeeding by senior year. Case in point is the husband and wife duo at Carter’s high school who taught History and English, two of the most difficult subjects for him, who puzzled him when they gave him As in both subjects.

    Dinner with colleagues at a committee meeting, where Charlie Carter says you usually can learn the most. From left to right: Larry Kloiber, Omer Blodgett, Tom Schlafly, Charlie Carter, Duane Miller.
    Charlie Carter and his career-long mentor, Lou Geschwindner.
    Charlie Carter bleeds rust.

    “When I saw them at graduation and asked how it could be, they said my last grades were based upon the potential they thought I had. I liked the feeling they conveyed to me so much, college became a whole different story for me,” Carter says.

    The AISC crew for one of their Rebuilding Together projects.
    Charlie Carter working on one of AISC’s Rebuilding Together projects in the Chicago suburbs.

    In 1985, Carter began his undergraduate years at Penn State with the intention of declaring architectural engineering as a major after his first year, which was as soon as one could do so. Carter graduated in 1990 with a B.S. in Architectural Engineering. After interviewing with a couple of different firms, and even getting a few job offers, Carter decided to take the advice of one firm and pursue a Master’s degree – that even after the company offered him a position.

    “I had taken several extra classes as an undergraduate that I could use toward some of the degree requirements for a Master’s degree, and so it wouldn’t take very long,” he says. “I did it, and along the way decided to focus my Master’s thesis on design methods and economy of steel connections.”

    That work led Carter to making a visit to Metropolitan Steel in Sinking Spring, Pa. where Ron Keating showed him the entire operation. This work is also where Carter met Vel Holcombe of Milton Steel, who helped him greatly in terms of understanding steel construction and breaking into the industry. After Carter completed his Master’s Degree in Architectural Engineering in October of 1991, there were very few job opportunities left as the economy had recently tumbled. Luckily, Carter had met Jerry Haaijer, the then vice president of Technology and Research at AISC, when he visited to speak to students about the new technologies in steel design and construction. After the lecture, Haaijer had a personal conversation with Carter on the development of his thesis. Five months later, Haaijer surprised Carter with a visit when he came by to see what work Carter had completed on his thesis.

    “Thank God I had done something! The discussion led to another lunch, that lunch to a job interview, and that interview to a job offer. And I took it!,” Carter says.

    The professional rise
    At AISC, Carter worked his way up from being a staff engineer to his current position as vice president and chief structural engineer, which involves the technical activities of engineering, research, education, and technical assistance.

    Since education runs in his blood, Carter also achieved a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Civil and Architectural Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology while working still at AISC. A student in a diversity of settings, Carter emphasizes the importance of not only pursuing education but continuing to pursue it as you grow in your career.

    One of his favorite classroom experiences was when Kevin Parfitt delivered a lecture addressing the issues a graduating engineer should consider, such as the importance of becoming licensed as an engineer, how to evaluate potential employers from the good to not so good options, and how money may not be the most important thing when looking for careers. Carter expanded his classes during undergrad to include a diversity of topics, and he is “glad to have taken multiple classes in each of the subjects of analysis, steel design, and concrete design. And even classes that covered masonry and wood design.”

    This web of expertise helps Carter in exactly the kind of work AISC does.

    “With collaborative effort with many volunteers from the design community and construction industry through a wide system of committees” AISC is able to take on topics that are a current challenge or need for the steel industry that could potentially “result in provisions that make sense for the AISC Specification, tools or guidance in the AISC Manual, or papers in the Engineering Journal, or articles in Modern Steel Construction to get useful information out,” Carter says.

    Carter beams that he is eternally fascinated by the variety of methods and means he is able to use when researching and developing topics because there is always so much knowledge being shared by the experts discussing a particular problem.

    “It’s also challenging to gain an understanding of that problem and ultimately rewarding when we reach a solution,” he says. Carter points to the mid-1990s, when AISC was developing their Hollow Structural Section Connections Manual, which held everything the industry could want from knowledge of materials, design, fabrication, and erection shared by the committee.

    The participation was staggering. “All of the then-new information was quite a learning experience for me,” Carter says, crediting the numerous volunteers who have dedicated their time and energy into helping AISC with its various works. “I always enjoy being a part of the discussions in which they fill the room with their wisdom and experience. These are talented people and it is a privilege to be associated with them.”

    When asked about his favorite type of work that AISC participates in, Carter’s answer is a quick response: Code of Standard Practice.

    “While everything else we do is much more technical, working on the Code is an opportunity to learn, develop and improve the business of buying and selling structural steel,” Carter says. “In this case, there are many answers that can be right. Finding the right answer that works for both the buyer and the seller – and the many parties to the contract who are also affected – requires more than the usual level of discussion, innovation and refinement.”

    Charlie Carter and wife Areti atop Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence, Italy.

    Carter is also quite proud of the 2005 AISC Specification for Structural Steel Buildings and the 13th Edition of AISC’s Steel Construction Manual, as they took ASD and LRFD, the two parallel design methods that were in use within the community, and unified them into a single approach highlighting the best each had to offer.

    “To me, the great privilege of my career is that I represent AISC while I also get to be the caretaker of the process that we enable,” Carter says.

    A word of thanks
    Carter is quick to credit all those that helped him along the way, from mentors to interns.

    “The gift for me personally is that many of these people are not just colleagues, they also are friends,” he says.

    Carter even met his wife of five years, Areti, through AISC. The family, consisting of Charlie, Areti, and his step-daughter Jami, currently live just outside of Chicago in a house Carter has been rehabbing. One of his many hobbies is woodworking and working on his new old house.

    “We moved in a year ago after renovating a 90-year-old original,” he says. “We took it down to studs and built it back in a style that remembered the old. That was an experience made all the more memorable because I was the homeowner, general contractor, and structural engineer for the job.”

    Carter also still loves to cheer on his alma mater Penn State when their Nittany Lions play football, as well as the New York Giants.

    Carter and Areti also enjoy traveling, especially exploring Italy. “In Florence, we enjoyed the panorama after climbing all 463 steps to the pinnacle of Brunelleschi’s Dome, perused the renaissance art and sculpture, including Michelangelo’s David, housed in the Accademia, Uffizi, and Pitti Palace, and strolled to the far corners of the Boboli Gardens. We barely scratched the surface of all there was to see and do!,” Carter says.

    As a community activity with AISC, every year the company participates in a Rebuilding Together house, a non-profit which helps rehabilitate homes for low-income homeowners, especially the elderly and those with disabilities.

    Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at