After graduating from the University of Illinois, Jack Laws ventured to San Francisco to start his structural engineering career. To him, the Bay Area was (and still is) one of the best places in the country to practice structural engineering because of the city’s reputation for innovation, preservation and opportunities to design structures in a high seismic zone. He worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) for more than a decade before joining Raj Sahai’s firm, Structural Design Engineers (SDE), which later merged with DCI Engineers. As part of Raj’s smaller engineering team, Jack expanded his project portfolio to new private, civic projects, and municipal projects, such as the Port of San Francisco, affordable housing, historic preservation and renovation work, and residential projects. Jack became active with the Structural Engineers Association of California (SEAOC) and later chaired the organization’s State of Existing Building Committee for several years. He worked with the group in updating and developing code criteria for the seismic safety of existing buildings, including historic buildings.
As he established his professional network, Jack continued to make contributions to downtown San Francisco. He soon discovered that his engineering expertise could be used to preserve local gems and landmarks. When consulting with the Port of San Francisco in the early ‘90s, Jack assessed the historic Ferry Building with a larger engineering team to determine the final renovation criteria, including the engineering efforts behind the clock tower strengthening, repairs to the historic pier structure, and the building’s expansion.
“We went under the building’s existing concrete pier on boats and floated around to document any damage,” Jack said. “We discovered that we needed to do a lot of crack repair. The interesting thing we found out as part of the renovation was that the 1898 concrete pier structure still met the gravity and seismic loading requirements for present day uses.”
“One issue we discovered we had to address was the existing pre-stressed concrete beams that were installed as part of the early 1970s BART tunnel extension from the East Bay into San Francisco. A portion of the original pier had been removed at that time and was replaced with a section of pre-stressed concrete beams and slabs, which allowed for the pier structure to span the dimensions of the new BART tunnel below. We discovered that some portions of these pre-stressed concrete beams had severely cracked over the years, leaving any exposed rebar and pre-stressing cables badly rusted. It wasn’t worth the effort to remove the old slab and beams, so we developed two systems that could act compositely, and the existing beams could be repaired in place. This made for an efficient upgrade that could be accomplished without disrupting the ongoing operation of the BART tunnel. It’s a good thing that the corroded beams were discovered and repaired at that time. It was a significantly unsafe condition that could have been much harder to repair in the future.”
Jack’s engineering contributions soon expanded to Bay Area neighborhoods and beyond. Jack worked on many commercial and private retrofits after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He also planned and managed the delicate reroofing project of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. When you ask about his professional accomplishments, Jack is still very humble. He likes to think he has done a good job as a structural engineer. Instead of focusing on his engineering successes on larger projects, he would rather talk about the many low income and affordable housing projects he has worked on and how they have made an impact on the San Francisco community, such as Hunters View Blocks 5 and 6 Housing, Richardson Apartments, and Dr. George W. Davis Senior Housing.
“Those projects were time well spent helping the community,” he said. “The same is true for being able to contribute to the restoration and preservation of many historic and other existing buildings, some which are not historic buildings, but are readapted and reused effectively – it’s very gratifying!”
He encourages the younger engineers at the office who have similar interests in historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects to pursue the work with a passion.
“Keep your mind open when you are solving problems,” Jack advised. “Don’t always go with the first solution that comes to mind. You spend a lot of time worrying about the small things. The next day, everything becomes clear. Stick with your engineering instincts, your belief in yourself, and be flexible and creative along the way.”
This year, Jack will devote part of his time at the San Francisco office until select projects are wrapped up. After that, he plans to go into full retirement mode: relax, read more, go to the gym, hike, bike, travel, and all the things he couldn’t do because he was too busy working.
“It’s been a pleasure to become friends with so many creative, professional and fun people at the office and through projects,” he said. “That’s going to be the hardest part of retiring – not spending as much time with all of the people you’ve become friends with, grown with and learned from over the years.”
Jack may not realize this yet, but he is an inseparable part of the San Francisco community he helped flourish and sustain. Jack is now the fabric of the city which residents and visitors enjoy every day. Who says we’re not going to see him around town soon?
About the Author
Rose Bechtold, Communications Specialist | Rose comes from a journalism and technical writing background. She is in her element while in research mode and naturally immerses herself in expert knowledge by interviewing staff members about new subjects. In her spare time, Rose practices plein-air sketching of buildings and random scenes around town.