William F. Baker: Reaching for the sky

    Bill Baker stands at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure in the world, designed by Baker and his team. Photots: SOM | Robert Hartel Windfall Films

    In the 1950s, William Frazier Baker’s world consisted of a small rural town in Missouri called Fulton, where his family had settled in the 1820s. There were no towering buildings stretching to the sky. Yet, today on the other side of the world the tallest man-made building reaches 828 meters into the heavens — thanks to structural engineer William (Bill) Baker.

    Fulton didn’t offer many professional career options: lawyers, teachers, farmers, doctors, and merchants were about it. In school, Baker excelled in his math, physics and history courses, although he wasn’t sure what to do with those talents as graduation approached. After taking a career aptitude test, Baker discovered he was well-suited for engineering. Ironically, his mother told him that both of his late grandfathers had been engineers. Solidifying this career path was his enjoyment of engineering classes at the University of Missouri, where in 1975 he received his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. Just after the oil embargo of the early 70s, most of Baker’s classmates headed south to work for the oil companies and Bill followed suit.

    “While the work was intellectually challenging, the product was not as tangible as a bridge or building,” he said.

    Bill Baker at work — Trump International Hotel and Tower project, Chicago. Photots: SOM | Robert Hartel Windfall Films

    This prompted what some felt was an unwise decision. Baker quit his good job and went back to school, enrolling at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wanting to expand his knowledge of structural engineering in particular, Baker took all the available courses in that field, including a heavy load of theoretical and behavioral classes, such as theories of plates and shells, both linear and nonlinear theories of elasticity, energy methods, and a host of courses that were outside the typically required design curriculum. Baker claims these courses were the very basis of his later ability to tackle design problems outside the norm. In 1980, Baker earned a Master of Science in Civil Engineering and was now ready to pursue his structural engineering career.

    While in grad school, a firm in Chicago caught Baker’s attention. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP (SOM) had a well-known structural engineering group led by Fazlur Khan and Hal Iyengar. Khan and Iyengar had both studied at the University of Illinois. In the summer of 1981, Baker joined the firm and worked under the same people who had designed some iconic structures of the 20th century — the John Hancock Center, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), and the Hajj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Saudi Arabia. “At SOM, the ordinary project would have been an extraordinary project for most other firms,” Baker said.

    Baker took advantage of the opportunity to work with the super-talents at SOM as he became more familiar with tall buildings. With the mentoring of Iyengar, Stan Korista, and John Zils, he learned the valuable engineering lesson of always having at least one viable solution for every problem and not to draw a structure without having at least one idea of how it could be feasibly built. Another facet of Baker’s early career was the good fortune of working with Myron Goldsmith at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture. At SOM, Baker was a junior engineer executing the designs of others. But on Saturdays he worked with Goldsmith and other architecture professors on the structural aspects of their students’ architectural masters theses, which would often involve tall building designs. This helped Baker formulate his own designs.

    SOM was the perfect place for Baker’s career to flourish. It was unique in that it was a formidable architecture office with some of the profession’s best structural engineers also on staff. This combination and the closeness of engineers working side-by-side with the architects provided unprecedented interaction and cross-training.

    Bill Baker with a model of his signature project, the Burj Khalifa. Photots: SOM | Robert Hartel Windfall Films

    “Some engineers view architects as the enemy, but at SOM we were collaborators and friends,” Baker said. He feels this may account for the successful completion of so many of the firm’s projects. It is a tradition that continues today.

    Today, Baker is the structural engineering partner at SOM. He is widely regarded for his structural innovation and his projects include landmarks such as Chicago’s Trump International Hotel and Tower, Broadgate — Exchange House in London, the Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Pedestrian Bridge in Chicago, and NATO headquarters in Belgium. Long-span roof structures such as the Korean Air Lines Operations Hangar and the Virginia Beach Convention Center are ranked high on his notables list, too. Adding to his list of accomplishments is his collaboration with artists Jamie Carpenter (Raspberry Island — Schubert Club Band Shell); Inigo Manglano-Ovalle (Gravity is a Force to be Reckoned With), and James Turrell (Roden Crater). The list of Baker’s feats goes on and on. But the pinnacle of his career to date would undoubtedly be the famed Burj Khalifa (originally dubbed Burj Dubai) — the tallest man-made structure in the world — in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, three of the world’s 10 tallest buildings are credited to Baker and his team: Burj Khalifa, Zifeng Tower, and Trump International Hotel & Tower.

    Baker ushered in a new era of supertall building design with his development of the “buttressed core” structural system used in the Burj Khalifa. He credits SOM’s method of work with this breakthrough design.

    “We are well suited to the task of creating a tall building on the basis of a clear vision and careful integrations of various design disciplines, as was the case with the Burj Khalifa,” he said. “Because of the extreme nature of skyscrapers, our architects, structural engineers, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers, and interior designers, as well as their various consultants, must address each of these areas with great attention in order to achieve efficient solutions.

    “On the Burj Khalifa, where portions of the floor plate are repeated well over 100 times, successful design relies upon a certain measure of precision that is not necessarily required in buildings of smaller stature. Like a Swiss watch, the components of a supertall building must accurately and efficiently fit and must be arranged so as to maximize the usefulness of the interior space as well as the efficacy of the structural and building services systems. Starting with the armature of structure, the components of the mechanical systems, vertical transportation, and tenant space are placed together with the meticulous care of a watchmaker,” he said.

    Baker’s Burj Khalifa design team focused on a chief organizing idea — one that was rooted in the engineering principles that would ultimately guide its development. Baker insists the team perform preliminary designs using conjugate beam theory, which are basic hand calculations. He feels if an idea is simple enough to be calculated by hand then it has a clarity that will produce a structure that is efficient and also easily built.

    “Simplicity is not easy,” he said. “Always returning to the intrinsic idea of the building gives the design process lucidity and direction. It also helps one make essential decisions when confronted with the unique situations that arise when creating a building of such great size.”

    Utilizing geometrical principles, SOM architects and engineers worked to create a form with triaxial geometry and spiraling growth, which is easily recognized in the tower’s final design. To accomplish this, however, a new structural system was required; thus the development of the buttressed core. This new system consists of high-performance concrete walls used to create three wings that buttress one another, forming a hexagonal hub. The core acts as an axle that encloses the elevators and resists the twisting of the tower. The three wings support the center core against the wind. Not only is this Y-shape plan functional; it is also ideal for minimal blockage of residential and hotel views.

    When asked what was the biggest challenge he faced in engineering the world’s largest building, Baker didn’t hesitate.

    “Without question, understanding and taming, and working with the forces of nature,” he said.

    Through series of wind tunnel tests, adjusting the model, utilizing the forces of gravity, and further analysis and more adjustments, the SOM team was able to efficiently resist the forces on the building, enabling them to satisfy the client’s wishes to continue to go higher than originally planned. In a video found on the SOM website, Baker explains how a design can use the same structural system and vertical elements to resist both gravity and wind, achieving greater efficiency. He talks about how gravity forces are managed so that they are in a position where they can help resist uplifting wind forces, saving on foundations and concrete reinforcements.

    “It is comparable to spreading your feet to stabilize yourself in a strong wind. You are then able to use your own weight to avoid toppling over,” he said.

    The tower’s inauguration occurred on Jan. 4, 2010. The buzz that day centered on just how tall the tower actually was. Baker felt rather smug knowing the answer. What he didn’t know until the surprise announcement was the name of the tower had changed from the Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa in honor of the United Arab Emirates president, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for his crucial support of the project. The project stemmed from a desire by the government to diversify from an oil-based economy to one that is service- and tourism-based. The total cost for the tower project was $1.5 billion. Recently, the investment company headed by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal says it plans to complete an even taller tower within the next five years. Its height will be roughly 2/3 of a mile or 1 kilometer high and will be located on the outskirts of the Red Sea city of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Baker is not surprised and said that it would be a terrible thing if this was the end of it and the new knowledge was not used to continue to construct taller and more efficient buildings.

    Baker has received numerous awards and accolades for his work, and in particular the Burj Khalifa. Among those honors, he was the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ OPAL award, recognizing lifetime achievement in design. In 2009, Baker was the first American to receive the Fritz Leonhardt Preis (Germany) and was the 2010 recipient of the Gold Medal from the Institution of Structural Engineers. In addition to his work at SOM, Baker is actively involved with numerous institutions of higher learning, as well as various professional organizations. Baker has many books and articles to his credit and he frequently lectures on engineering topics around the country and abroad. He continues to keep 10-plus hour days when he is in town and not traveling to project sites or on a lecture tour. And he doesn’t foresee slowing down anytime soon.

    When asked what his advice to young would-be engineers would be, he replied: “Get as much education as you can and do take theoretical classes. Don’t panic when things go awry on a project — go back to your basics.”

    This once young boy from Fulton reached heights never thought possible through hard work, good practices, and a belief in the impossible.

    Susan Wallace is a freelance writer and co-owner of Vantage Point Communications living in Fayetteville, Ark. She can be contacted at susan@vpointcommunications.com.