Jon Magnusson looked down at the base anchor of what would become the Seattle Space Needle as he stood side by side with his father, Robert. As a teenager, he recalled feeling unsure of what he was looking at but felt excited about his father working as the chief estimator for this and other projects for the 1962 Seattle World Fair. Back at Sellen Construction Company’s warehouse, Magnusson noticed an industrial-sized box of nails, so he asked his father if he could take a few home. Once home he pried the nails out of the bottom of his jeans pocket, took a hammer from the garage and just began knocking the nails through a piece of plywood before realizing, "Wow, this is fun."
It’s easy to see how Magnusson took a swift rise to the top of the engineering profession. A solid student in high school who went straight into the engineering undergraduate program at University of Washington, Magnusson says it wasn’t until his junior year that he knew civil engineering was the specialty for him. A year before that momentous decision, Magnusson was inspired by a core physics class, where he learned about forces and reactions and how they really work together, giving him "a new, deep level of understanding" he never had noticed before. Another highly influential class assigned the students to design a wheelbarrow, which Magnusson described as "very exciting to be able to apply the physics, calculate the load demands, and actually size the handles all using mathematics!" While these classroom experiences were essential, Magnusson also emphasized the importance of real life experiences, such as those college summers spent cleaning tools or chipping away old bits of concrete, while also learning valuable advice from his fellow employees about what tools served what specific purpose and how to take care of those instruments. Perhaps most importantly, Magnusson had his first engineering experience working on-site to shoot surveying lines, ensuring the safety of a building and making sure the walls were assembled on level.
"I’ve often looked back at my experiences during the summer working construction as being just as or even more valuable in terms of what I need to know to do my job now as what I was learning in the classroom," he said.
Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from the University of Washington in 1975, Magnusson enrolled in the University of California Berkeley to receive his Master’s of Science in Civil Engineering in 1976. He was hired shortly after by Skilling Helle Christiansen Robertson, a firm located in Seattle known for their innovative and advanced take on projects. Magnusson recalled his first assignment, "Engineering the 140-foot by 180-foot truncated post-tensioned concrete pyramids of the first phase of the Baltimore Convention Center. The firm was loaded with great engineers and mentors."
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Surrounded by motivating team members and leaders, Magnusson quickly rose through the ranks at SHCR, being elected to vice president at age 29 and elected CEO at age 34. After being the CEO for the past 24 years, Magnusson still leads that company, now known as Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Inc. With more than 36 years of experience and professional licensure in 24 states, Magnusson has led MKA as the firm worked on projects in 47 states and 48 different countries, totaling over $73 billion worth of projects designed. Magnusson personally has had 24 projects recognized with American Council of Engineering Companies national engineering excellence awards in the last 26 years.
Magnusson and his company have benefited from regular accolades throughout the years. Magnusson was elected to two different "Structural Engineer of the Year" awards, first by the Structural Engineers Association of Washington in 1999 and again by the American Council of Engineering Companies of Washington in 2001. In 2003, the Washington Society of Professional Engineers named him professional engineer of the year on top of being one of only eight people (and the only engineer) elected to be an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. In 2011, Magnusson received the Designer Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Steel Construction, with special recognition for maintaining the voice of reason in discussing structural integrity after the 9/11 tragedies.
Despite the personal accolades, Magnusson has never lost sight of the importance of teamwork within the industry.
It is this often unrecognized aspect of the structural engineering profession that seems to fascinate Magnusson. During his career he has helped unite so many different aspects of construction, engineering, mathematics, and design to create numerous distinct and fascinating structures. Magnusson recalled a 63-story building project in Bangkok that illustrates how different skills are called for when designing the structural elements of a building. Since MKA had very little time to draft the concept design, "I was working on an upside down drawing creating the line work and John Skilling (an associate at MKA) was lettering on the same drawing from the other side. The owner had never seen anything like it. They called in people from different parts of the office and started taking pictures of us. We completed that framing plan in record time!," Magnusson said.
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"Civil Engineering enables virtually every aspect of modern living in ways that few outside of the profession understand. Everything that we eat, drink, and breathe relies on the skills of civil engineers," Magnusson said. "When you turn the faucet on and get a glass of water, that’s because of civil engineers."
From the faucet to the front door, every feature is made possible by the dedication and intelligence of numerous professionals. Each project Magnusson has worked on is never just "his," but rather the result of a massive team of owner, architects, engineers, and builders.
"Even though the engineering is important, even more important are the people that you work with to accomplish what at first may seem impossible," Magnusson said. "The longer I have been in the profession, the more I realize that it really is about people and only secondarily about projects."
Motivated by this belief in teamwork, Magnusson was inspired to become heartily involved in mentoring and numerous philanthropy endeavors.
Magnusson first heard about the Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) mentoring program in the spring of 2001 when at a Structures Congress breakfast Charlie Thornton, chairman of Charles H. Thornton and Company, introduced one of their most recent scholarship winners to the crowd. A young woman approached the stage at the announcement of her name to accept and immediately started crying during her speech. Impressed by her humble grace upon receiving the award and seeing just how important these scholarships can be, Magnusson quickly accepted the position of president of the Seattle ACE affiliate when Thornton offered it to him later that day.
"I already decided to do something about it as soon as I saw her up there, seeing what a difference this made in her life," Magnusson said.
After more than 10 years, the ACE Program of Washington has had more than 1,000 students graduate from it, with more than $240,000 in ACE scholarships awarded to encourage these young minds to explore the careers within architecture, engineering, and construction through design and engineering projects that advance understanding of how these industries function.
Through his work with the ACE program, Magnusson is trying to identify students in high schools and middle schools to reveal what incredible careers can be found in these fields. Magnusson said it’s also important to share the immense amount of knowledge that’s come to light over the past 25 years to students interested in pursuing the profession. Current engineers need to help these students and "bring them up to speed, teach them the lessons, and make sure they don’t make the same mistakes we’ve made. Finding them and teaching them, that’s the biggest challenge," he said.
Another endeavor that Magnusson has been deeply involved with is called Water 1st International, a Seattle-based charity that helps towns and villages in Ethiopia, India and more countries source fresh water for hygiene and nutrition.
He has helped the foundation raise over $483,000 so far.
Jon Magnusson dedicates what little downtime he has to his family. He has been married to his wife Nancy for more than 36 years. They have three children and now one grandchild. While the family contains three generations of civil engineers, they still enjoy their downtime together by skiing, traveling, and other family activities. Magnusson is also an Eagle Scout, which helped to raise three children and still continues to impact his recreation.
"I don’t really sit down or do hobby work, I prefer to be more active and out and about," he said.
Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at Maureen.firstname.lastname@example.org.