The Man Behind the Wonders – Bill Baker Reveals The Secrets Of Structural Engineering

Mr Bill Baker, long-term structural engineering partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM).
Mr Bill Baker, long-term structural engineering partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM).

Industrial PRIME | June 22, 2016

The Man Behind the Wonders – Bill Baker Reveals The Secrets Of Structural Engineering

Industrial PRIME | June 22, 2016

There are no limits, gravity is nothing and it is all about simplicity. And we are talking about supertall skyscrapers? Feeling dizzy already…


Industrial PRIME has just found its way back to the surface from the depths of the subway. We are standing at the corner of West Grand Avenue and North State Street in the heart of Chicago.

A mist is hovering in the night air, hiding from view the tops of the tallest buildings. Still, we are gazing up, trying to imagine just how high into the sky do those skyscrapers reach. This kind of behaviour must be instinctive and perfectly normal; after all, there is not much to marvel at in the place we call home, at least when it comes to the skyline.

But now we are in Chicago, Illinois, and the city immediately captures our attention with its buildings that vanish into the clouds as if they were infinitely tall. Located in the Midwest, this metropolis is well known for many of its cultural achievements as well as its thriving economy. But what has brought us here today is its unique skyline and a man responsible for many of the world’s most impressive buildings.

We have a good feeling about this trip. Still, we had better start with a good night’s sleep. After all, we just got off a transatlantic flight.


A Stroll Along the Magnificent Mile

The next morning, we think it would be a good idea to explore the city on our way to the interview we have set up. The city map tells us it will make a perfect walk from East Ohio Street to South Michigan Avenue, where we are going to meet our interviewee.

The city is full of skyscrapers, its architecture a breathtaking combination of modern times and eras bygone. The effect of surroundings such as these to your neck is pretty much the same as that of a seven-hour sleep on an airplane.

We are about take a stroll on a route called The Magnificent Mile. It reveals many of Chicago’s well-known landmarks as we approach our destination. During our walk, we can see glimpses of the John Hancock Center behind our backs, while the Trump Tower stands tall on the right side of Chicago River. Even the river itself is considered to be a notable triumph of man-made history, as the flow of the river was reversed through civil engineering in the late 19th century.

A few blocks later we reach the Millennium Park, where we, among dozens of other tourists, amuse ourselves with the reflections offered by Cloud Gate. Sooner than we thought, we become aware that one of the buildings we see in the reflection is actually our intended destination.

We are about to learn more about all these man-made wonders.




“What we were trying to do at the oil company was not even make oil, it was to generate a cash flow. I just couldn’t imagine spending my entire life generating a cash flow.”



 Cloud Gate

Cloud Gate (also nicknamed The Bean), a public sculpture that is the centrepiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in Chicago.




Creating Something You Can See

After six months of schedule matchmaking, we have been able to set up an appointment at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM).

Founded in 1936, SOM is one of the largest and most influential architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world. The iconic, award-winning buildings designed by SOM include Lever House, Cadet Chapel, Air Force Academy, John Hancock Center, Weyerhaeuser Corporate Headquarters, the Hajj Terminal, and Exchange House.

And then there is one more building, the building. One that is 160 stories high and stands half a mile tall, a building so tall that it can in fact offer two sunsets during one and the same evening.

The reason why we are here in Chicago is the structural engineer behind this wonder. The man we are talking about is Mr William F Baker, while the building in question is perhaps his most famous achievement, the Burj Khalifa.

Mr Baker greets us with a big, welcoming smile and asks us to call him Bill.

“Everyone calls me Bill. There’s no reason to make an exception this time,” he says.

So Bill it is. Still, in this article, we are going to persist and refer to him as Mr Baker.

We are standing in the lobby of the 10th floor when Mr Baker starts giving us the tour around the SOM office.

“Generally, your architects and engineers are in different companies,” he says. “Here we have three floors of integrated practices where everyone works together in a very informal environment. The space is flexible, teams come and go, and there’s lots of communication.”

Mr Baker shows us around the office, a modern open space with a large, square-shaped empty space in the middle. Through this space, we can see each of the three levels of the SOM office and the people working in them.

We walk down a flight of stairs, pass through a couple of long open aisles, and finally arrive at Mr Baker’s desk. It is covered with books and sketches, while the walls are plastered with drawings and various kinds of objects, tools we have never seen before.

What we sense in the office and already know about Mr Baker makes us wonder, where does all this passion for designing unbelievably challenging buildings stem from? Did he have it already when he was a kid, or what? To our surprise, this is not the case.

“I grew up in a very small town, where the tallest building was probably three stories high,” he reveals. “I always liked maths, and when I took an aptitude test in high school, they said I should consider becoming an engineer. I went back home and asked my mother what an engineer was. It turned out both of my grandfathers had been structural engineers!”

The young Bill Baker went on to study engineering, knowing only that what he would like to do as an engineer was something visual, something that he could see. However, for his first job, he followed the trend of the times and ended up working for an oil company in Houston. After about four years, he realized it was not exactly what he would like to devote his life to.

“I came to the conclusion that what we were trying to do at the oil company was not even make oil, it was to generate a cash flow.” He smiles and continues, “I just couldn’t imagine spending my entire life generating a cash flow.”

By that time Mr Baker had worked with some structural engineers and realized that he did not know anything yet.

“That is actually a very valuable thing to know, that you don’t know that much,” he laughs. “So I went to graduate school for several years.”

And that is how he ended up working for SOM in 1981. According to his own words, SOM is the place where he learnt it all. Today, it certainly looks like others are learning from him – and by saying that we are not merely referring to ourselves.




“If it takes a lot of words, maybe you’re not there yet.”




Bill Baker

Mr Baker has worked for SOM for thirty-five years, twenty of those as a partner.




Making Complex Simple

During all these years, Mr Bill Baker has worked with the design of various kinds of buildings.

According to him, the idea for a groundbreaking new building is the sum of multiple factors. Needless to say, it takes past experience and abilities built over the course of time. What you need then is phenomenal new ideas and concepts with which simple solutions can be found to complex problems.

“What you should do is distil a problem to its essence and then solve it,” he says. “You’ll need to resolve issues of hierarchy, especially when it comes to tall buildings with various conflicting demands. So, what you have to do is decide what is more important than what, and then create a hierarchy.”

Mr Baker has a surprisingly simple tip for designing a building: once you have developed something that works, try to describe it with words. Aptly, he compares the process to that of writing.

“If it takes a lot of words, maybe you’re not there yet. You can consider it as your first draft that you’re going to need to edit. That’s what we do in structural design: we come up with a solution and then try to edit it and simplify it to its essence.”

To Mr Baker, it is sort of like the Holy Grail of description to manage to shorten it all the way down to two words, preferably an adjective followed by a noun.

“For instance, the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) is known as a ‘bundled tube.’ If you can make an idea that simple and clear, you can explain it to the rest of your team, to the owner, the contractor, as well as all the other design professionals you’re working with. It helps you make decisions.”

That makes sense, although it is doubtful whether Industrial PRIME is ever going to be able to simplify any of its articles quite that much…

Another useful tip to get us started with the design of our next headquarters is to think of a building as one giant “beam.”

“If you look at a skyscraper and what you see is thousands of columns, beams, and walls, it’s too complex and your brain cannot deal with it,” Mr Baker points out. “But if you can think of it as just one object, one idea, one structure, you are getting closer.”




“Gravity, believe it or not, is not very hard to deal with.”




Sky Is the Limit

We might as well admit that we have been waiting for the right moment to ask: just how high can we go with skyscrapers? Is it possible, for instance, to build a mile-tall building?

“Oh yeah,” Mr Baker confirms without a moment of hesitation.

“I don’t know if there even is a limit. But if there is, it is probably related to vertical transportation and your ear pressure.” He pauses and finds a scale model on the shelf behind his back to illustrate the challenge. “You know, whenever you step on an elevator and go up a tall building, your ears pop. So if you had a head cold and you’d go up a mile really fast, imagine how that would feel! Therefore, rather than the expertise available on the structural engineering side, that would be the principal limitation we would be dealing with.”

We learn that there is a proposed building in Saudi Arabia that is based on the same system as the Burj Khalifa and that is going to become even taller. According to Mr Baker, with that particular system, a building could probably be as tall as 1.2 kilometres, or three-quarters of a mile.

”After that, you’d need to come up with something different,” he states. “You can think of buildings as creatures that all have their own scale and form. As you get bigger, you need to come up with a new creature that is going to need different kinds of solutions in order for it to work. To give an example, the Willis Tower, where the system scales by the cube, could not be any taller than it is.”

It turns out that from a structural engineering point of view, it is not always the tallest buildings that pose the greatest challenges. When it comes to the safety of skyscrapers, Mr Baker brings up three main issues: gravity, wind, and seismic factors. Out of the three, the biggest challenge is the wind.

“Gravity, believe it or not, is not very hard to deal with,” he points out. “Nor are seismic factors usually a very big problem either – in fact it is the small buildings that are much more likely to have problems in the event of an earthquake.”

In contrast to gravity and seismic factors, wind can be a major headache when designing a tall building.

“That is because when the wind goes past a building, it has to go around it.” Mr Baker takes a quick glance around him and grabs a long tool hanging on the wall. “There is always a chance for this to happen in an unstable manner, in which case the harmonics of the building are disrupted,” he continues, at same time demonstrating the winds and the tower’s swinging motion with the aid of the heavy stick.

“So, the single most important parameter for an engineer designing a skyscraper is the shape of the building.” The real purpose of this tool is still a complete mystery to us, but it sure did the trick.




“I’ve worked on two-storey buildings that have had a lot more headaches.”




Bill Baker

”It’s got to be in here somewhere.” The wall of Mr Baker’s office is covered with various kinds of papers. Eventually, he manages to find what he is looking for: a picture of the Burj Khalifa.




The Burj Khalifa

Inevitably, our discussion leads us to the final topic, the Burj Khalifa.

In 2003, a developer decided to build a supertall building in Dubai. People were sent to the United States to interview the “usual suspects,” that is the people most renowned for their work in the field of tall buildings. An idea competition was held, and it was SOM that emerged as the winner.

In fact, the original plan was as much as 300 meters lower than the actual end result. It was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who inspired Emaar Properties, the developer, to push boundaries and create a truly iconic tower.

However, when Mr Baker and co. took their competition scheme into the wind tunnel, it behaved worse than expected. Radical changes had to be made to the shape of the building if it was to be built any taller.

Needless to say, the result of these changes was certainly a pleasant surprise for the ambitious sheikh.

“It got a lot better, and we were able to make the building grow by 310 meters during the design process,” he says, looking at the drawing on the wall. “Eventually, we got to where it couldn’t go any higher, partly because forty floors had already been built and it was too late to change certain things.”

Described in two words, the Burj Khalifa is a “buttressed core.” The term refers to a structural system invented by Mr Baker himself. In the system, which is used to support the height of the building, each of the wings buttresses the others via a six-sided central core.

To our surprise, the construction of the Burj Khalifa was a rather smooth process. Occasional meetings were held on location in Dubai between SOM, the local engineers and Samsung, the contractor, to resolve issues. But all in all, we learn, the project was uneventful.

“I’ve worked on two-story buildings that have had a lot more headaches,” Mr Baker points out.

Once finished, the building was opened to the public in January 2010, and it has been one of the world’s most famous landmarks ever since. How does the man behind the world’s tallest building feel about the masterpiece today?

“Oh, I like it, I go there occasionally. The world’s first Armani Hotel is there, though I’ve stayed there only once, because when you’re in the hotel you cannot see the building! I prefer to stay somewhere where I can get a look at the tower.”

Before we finish our interview, we are eager to find out what is Mr Baker’s favourite building in the world? Is it the Burj Khalifa?

“It would be the Hancock.” Mr Baker keeps surprising us. “I think it is very honest, very simple but expressive. It sort of matches with my personal values, but also with what Chicago is all about.”

Since we are staying in Chicago for a few more days, we decide to go and take a better look at that building. However, instead of rushing towards the building itself, we follow Mr Baker’s example and head in the opposite direction, where reach the Willis Tower, currently the tallest building in the United States. We climb all the way to the top and get a perfect view of the Hancock building and the entire city of Chicago.

And we must say – man can do some pretty amazing things.



This magnificent view greeted us from the top of the Willis Tower. The tall, dark building with two antennas is the Hancock building.


Industrial PRIME


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e-mail: contact(at)industrialprime.com

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