by Rick Reynolds
Q: Chris, Engineering News Report recently announced their 2015 Regional Winners for New England. You were one of 10 winners judged top in their fields in four areas: for leadership within their organizations, for creating landmark projects, for giving back to the industry, and finally, for giving back to the community. Starting with your leadership qualities within your organization, what personal philosophy has led to your success?
A: I’ve been really lucky to work with the talented people I’ve had all around me. When I first joined Bensonwood, I studied under, and reported to, the renowned structural timber engineer, Ben Brungraber, who taught me not only the intricacies of wood engineering, but of business and client relations as well. Though he runs his own company now, I still consult with him when the need arises. Now, every day I work with great minds within our company: Dennis Marcom in timber framing, Jay Lepple and Paul Boa in Building Systems, my colleagues in the engineering and design departments, and of course, Tedd Benson, to name just a few. Many great ideas come from them. If I have any particular strength, it’s in the ability to listen to a good idea and work it as a team to develop it further.
Q: You are also a Company Steward: a vaulted position, if you will, in the company. Tell me about how that informs your work?
A: I don’t take that role lightly; it’s a real responsibility. Bensonwood is a democratic company, where sharing and collaboration are prized. So a Company Steward does not dictate, but rather fosters that democratic culture. Beyond that, I must take stewardship of our clients and their projects, of the company mission, of our balance sheet, and our place in the market as innovators and educators. Incidentally, regarding that last point, that’s where much of my outreach comes out of. It’s important to educate people.
Q: Speaking of your public speaking engagements, what forums have you spoken at?
A: It’s one of the highlights of my job as I enjoy speaking to interested people about how we can use structural timber. I think it’s essential for the company, for the students at the schools, and for the industry if we are to raise the building standards in this country. Of course, the more people know about the carbon benefits of timber engineering and the ways of better building we are developing, the better it is for Bensonwood. But, I’ve given talks at Yale, Dartmouth, West Point, UMass, NYS Greenbuild, Yestermorrow, and served on a NESEA Building Energy panel.
Q: What are some of the projects you’ve engineered that are most memorable?
A: Some might surprise you. They’re not necessarily the largest projects or the most intricate, but they’re important to their communities. I’m proud of the local baseball pavilion we built here in Walpole, and the wood grandstand for the Cotuit Cotliers baseball team, a minor league farm team on Cape Cod. The All Souls church steeple in Brattleboro, Vermont was fun to engineer, and quite intricate since it was completely fabricated as one assembly in our shop and flown into place on site in one pick. But in addition to all the great residences, including a lot of coastal homes I’ve worked on, the Catherine Houghton Arts Center in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, and currently, the Common Ground School in New Haven, Connecticut—both educational facilities of course—come to mind as exciting and important projects. The Common Ground School design in particular, which will be installed this summer, calls for large spans, cantilevered overhangs, and a new roof system we’ve just developed—all exciting stuff for a structural engineer.
Q: What is unique about wood engineering? Why have you made this your life?
A: First of all, wood is a natural, renewable material that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, so it’s both beautiful and sustainable. But it can be challenging to engineer given its material anisotropy. As a result, I don’t have the same connection methods available as a steel engineer does. For instance, we can’t weld or bolt wood with moment resisting connections to prevent horizontal deformation during high wind or seismic events. There’s a whole different science to detailing connections in wood engineering that is fascinating. I touched on engineering shore homes that are exposed to coastal storms and extreme wind loads. They often have curtain walls of windows to take in the views that we can’t rely on structurally without steel moment frames. So, to keep it wood we do 3D analysis to understand how to limit horizontal deformation by transferring the load away from the windows through roof and floor diaphragms into shear walls. Traditional timber frames sometimes offer us diagonal bracing for this resistance, but more modern structures tend to lose the diagonal bracing. That’s what gets me up in the morning—and sometimes keeps me up at night. But beyond the calculations and the office work, here at Bensonwood I get to go to the shops every day and often to the site. Here I get to see and help install my designs; seeing beyond the computer and experiencing the reality of construction is such an advantage.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring structural wood engineers?
A: I’d tell them that everything matters. Design, calculations, materials, craftsmanship, work deployment, it’s all interdependent. Beyond that, listening, learning, sharing, educating, stewardship, excellence—it all matters.