Snapshot: Gary Swenson, Engineer

Gary Swenson, Engineer

Job: Structural engineering, seismic studies, and retrofitting
Firm: Swenson Say Faget
Location: 2124 Third Ave., Suite 100
Established: 1995
Staff size: 35

What is the scope of your work?

A: This year alone we have worked on nearly 2,000 projects of various types and complexities. As structural engineers, our work typically involves traditional consulting services to architectural clients, with the end result being a set of construction documents to build the structure. However, over the last few years, our work has extended beyond the typical architect/engineer relationship. We are working more with building owners, property managers, contractors, commercial real estate companies and public agencies in both the evaluation of existing structures and the design of new buildings.

What excites you about a project?

A: An exciting project is one that brings together an energized design team that communicates well; has a positive impact on our community in terms of social and architectural value; provides opportunity to explore innovative, creative solutions; and challenges current engineering technology.

Which are some recent projects?

A: Our role with the Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia is to assess the seismic capabilities of the structure and design measures to mitigate unacceptable risks, reconfigure the structure to accommodate interior modifications and participate in various schematic scenarios that consider new solutions to needs not currently being met by the building.

The Seattle Academy campus is a phased project we have been working on for several years. We are currently working with Miller/Hull Partnership on the Visual and Performing Arts Center, which is currently under construction. Design is underway for a new gymnasium and athletic center.

What is your favorite project?

A: We’ve worked on so many projects, picking a favorite is difficult. A recent favorite in our office was the work we completed on the TRC Tower in Tacoma, a redevelopment of an existing 120,000-square-foot concrete frame building constructed in the 1920s. Formerly the Schoenfeld Furniture Building, the structure was redeveloped into offices and seismically retrofitted. It was a fast track project requiring the design and construction team to work closely together to meet extremely tight time constraints.

How do you avoid canned designs?

A: We seek out projects that are unique and encourage creative solutions as we find challenges. It is mandatory that we brainstorm a wide array of solutions. As we develop our skills on unique projects, it carries over to all of our projects. We hire staff based partly on their ability to be creative and open-minded. In addition, our clients expect innovative solutions from us. Since most of our work is repeat work, we are continuously challenged to consider all the options.

How does your work on new construction differ from historic projects?

A: New construction is clearly regulated by code and utilizes a relatively predictable spectrum of contemporary materials and construction techniques. We can brainstorm with the architect regarding systems, construction types, architectural features, etc., that are desired and allowed by code and budget. For historic projects, the process is somewhat reversed. We assess the existing structure and what can be done within that framework. In addition, we determine what can be altered to accommodate a changed function, what deficiencies exist and how they can be mitigated. This often includes discussions with the owner and building department regarding acceptable levels of risk and what is required to reduce them.

How does your firm benefit from working as a team?

A: Working as a team is probably the single most important item in achieving a successful project. A truly successful project means all the members of the team benefit. The team process begins with the owner and architect having a clear vision of the project, and communicating that vision to the other team members. Hopefully the team includes at least the design professionals, contractor and building department.

What innovations have changed your field?

A: The research and data that has emerged in the area of assessment and rehabilitation of historic buildings has been a powerful tool in making our historic buildings more useable and safe. Up until the early ’70s, few turn-of-the-century historic structures were occupied, and most were considered to be unsafe buildings. Today, these buildings are pursued as treasures to be revitalized and woven into the fabric of our culture.

A more recent innovation is the changing focus of the workplace. We have seen companies shift from being primarily production oriented to placing more value on employee benefits and satisfaction. We are now more inclined to see offices talk of their culture, demonstrate respect for staff, and offer benefits such as maternity/paternity leave, stock options, cafeteria plans, mental health days, nap rooms, childcare, etc. These changes are resulting in more balanced lives amongst staff and more enjoyment in the workplace, leading to better staff stability and enhanced quality work-product.

What holds your interest in the profession?

A: I entered engineering as a means of creative expression, and saw it as an opportunity to work with creative people in molding our community. I am continuously fascinated by what is being achieved in our profession. Where I have an opportunity to participate, I am even more amazed at the incredible talent of the people who create these buildings.

Watching my co-workers continuously learn and push the boundaries of structural engineering continues to kindle my interest in the profession. These people always seem to be on the edge of discovering something new, looking for new ways to satisfy old questions and engaged with one another to achieve something better.

DJC Article 1.3.01


In Memoriam: Gary Swenson / / 06.01.22

Founding partner, Gary Swenson, 83, passed away on April 22, 2022, at his home in San Diego.

Gary Swenson Retires After 50 Years / / 11.14.11

After 50 years as a structural engineer in Seattle, founding principal at Swenson Say Fagét, Gary Swenson will retire next month.