Since the 2013 merger between DCI and SDE, Steve Lepisto has played a vital role in the San Francisco office – acting as a bridge between the two firms and helping transfer his institutional knowledge to a new generation of young engineers. We asked Steve about his career in engineering, the merger and the future of DCI+SDE in the booming Bay Area market.
What attracted you to engineering as a career?
I was always attracted to things related to architecture and building. I started in high school with architectural drafting, then entered Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the architecture program. After a year I realized that I was better at the math side of things than the artistic side, so I switched to architectural engineering, which allowed me to apply my math skills to architecture.
What drew you to SDE as a firm?
I liked the diversity of SDE’s projects. At the time they were working on new office buildings, office interiors, single-family homes, multi-family residential, and renovation projects. One of my first projects with SDE was the first phase of the 3COM corporate campus in Santa Clara, California, which went on in later phases to include office buildings, a manufacturing building, a free standing parking structure, and multiple office buildings over a parking podium.
What is the biggest SDE attribute that helped the company keep up with the highs and lows of the Bay Area market over the years?
The diversity of projects and clients helped ensure that we could always find work – we could rely on education or government projects when the market cooled in the private sector, for example. The loyalty of clients also played a huge part – we knew our reputation would ensure that we’d be the first they called when a project came up. The unfortunate disasters of the Oakland Hills fire and the Loma Prieta earthquake also happened during some slow periods, leading to lots of new homes and seismic retrofit work.
It’s been two years since DCI and SDE merged. How has the transition gone? In what ways do the two firms complement each other?
The transition has gone very smoothly. We had a lot of new things to learn in terms of DCI business systems (timesheets, computer and network setups, CAD standards, etc.), but those systems work very well and all of the DCI people were very helpful. The approach to structural engineering at SDE was very similar to that of DCI, so the DCI motto of “Service, Innovation, and Value” felt very comfortable to us and to our long-time clients. At the same time, the merger and the DCI transplants from Seattle brought a new energy to our office.SDE brings a lot of experience working with the local agencies and on many affordable housing projects. DCI brings a lot of experience with private developers.
Describe one of your favorite Bay Area engineering projects you were involved with, either professionally or personally.
The most fun I’ve ever had on a job was when I worked with some preservation architects for the evaluation of a historic ice shed near Merced Lake in Yosemite National Park. It required backpacking into the site to evaluate the structure. The hike was about 14 miles each way, peaking at 10,100 feet and ending in Yosemite Valley at 4,000 feet. We stayed two nights at the Merced Lake High Sierra Camp.
In your years of experience designing in San Francisco, what do you think is unique about the city? Is the structural engineering process different there than it would be in another city?
Projects in San Francisco are usually constrained by many more parameters than those outside of the city, such as small parcel sizes, steep hillsides, neighboring buildings, poor soils, the desire for multiple uses, and a political atmosphere that requires significant community input. These tend to make the buildings more architecturally and structurally complicated, and the result is that each project is more unique. There’s no “typical” blueprint for designing in San Francisco.
Is there something that you often hear from clients regarding DCI/SDE’s service? What makes the firm stand out in the San Francisco market?
Our clients like our responsiveness and our problem-solving approach, whether it’s finding a way to make the structure most efficient or a way for the structure to accommodate a unique architectural feature.
Multifamily development is booming in San Francisco. Where do you see the market going in the coming years? What do you think our industry needs to do to adapt and keep up with the changing market?
Housing has been in short supply in the Bay Area for many years, so the current boom in multifamily development will not satisfy the backlog of demand in the near future. The trend to more urban living will keep the demand high in places like San Francisco and will also influence the designs in more suburban areas. Residents are demanding more services in or near their building, meaning more mixed-use projects.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting their career as a structural engineer?
Try to get as much variety in projects as you can so that you can be exposed to all types of materials and systems. You may find a niche that you really like and want to concentrate on, or you may prefer to maintain a broad spectrum of work.
What is your favorite part of the job – the nuts and bolts of design work? Client relations?
I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of design, fitting together all of the pieces of the puzzle to provide not only an efficient structural solution but one that benefits the other pieces of the puzzle.
About the Author
Caleb Heeringa, Communications Coordinator | Caleb enjoys immersing himself in the A/E/C industry and informing audiences about DCI’s contribution to state-of-the-art structural development. Preferring a conversational style, he naturally narrates the firm’s design approach and project details to professionals in other industries. With a knack for adventure, he enjoys international travel and exploring the back corners of Washington’s wilderness.