“Do you like math?”

This was the question that led to my first job as a structural engineer. I was fresh out of college with a civil engineering degree, applying for a job as a structural engineer. And while the two fields are related, it was really a bit of a stretch for me to be considered for a structural job when my background was in civil.

I chatted with the interviewer for a bit, and then he hit me with the question: “Well, do you like math?” And I did. I liked solving problems. I liked considering multiple variables. And I liked finding the answers. And so I answered “yes.” And I was hired. (By the way, the firm that hired me was Horty, Elving & Associates, and the interviewer was Arnold Berg, and I’m very grateful to them both for taking a chance on me.)

I grew up on a farm and spent a good chunk of time working in my father’s iron shop, welding and working with steel. I specifically remember instances where my dad would tell me to use a 4×4 angle, and wondering how he knew that. I recall having to make a lot of guesses, but I also remember being constantly curious about what was right.

I think it’s the combination of these two items – my love of math, and my curiosity – that allows me to enjoy structural engineering so much.

My work gives me the opportunity to consider a situation, determine the myriad variables that exist and then propose the best way to proceed. Basically, I get to put forth a plan to make things work.

Take for example a fairly simple four-sided structure… say, an industrial building. Consider the various forces that might come to bear on that structure. There is the weight of the building materials themselves. The forces created by a heavy vehicle resting on the floor. The vibrations
of a running engine or from other equipment. Air pressure changes from open and closed doors.

There are foundation concerns, with the ground potentially heaving or settling. The forces of wind from the sides, and snow and rain from the top. Fluctuations in temperature cause expansion and contraction. Add the potential forces created as people interact with the structure. The list goes on. Break out the algebra and geometry, and let the calculating begin.

In my opinion, there is beauty in making things work. Daily, I get the chance to consider the best way to build a structure that works. In some cases, that structure might be a building. In other cases, it might be a 70- or 80-foot stack. It might be a cooling tower or pipeline. Or a tunnel. Or a storage tank or printing equipment. Each instance is an exercise in problem solving. And I get to find the right answer.

Some of you might know that I run my own hardwood sawmill, and that I recently rebuilt a 8000-pound 1973 Allis Chalmers 540 4WD articulating wheel loader. In some ways, my interest in items like these is completely separate from my interest in structural engineering. But in other ways, turning hardwood logs into boards, or rebuilding antique mechanical components, is an extension of my interest in making things work.

At Krech, O’Brien, Mueller & Associates, I’ve been fortunate to work on interesting, engaging projects. I have the opportunity to work alongside some amazing engineers and architects – from our firm, and from others – and I get to work with great clients, many of whom we’ve had a relationship with for many years. I have been blessed by the business we’ve built.

And – even after more than 30 years as a structural engineer – I enjoy coming to work every day. There are always problems to be solved. And there are always ways to make things work.

It’s a good thing I like math.