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Mizzou Engineering alumnus takes success to new heights

William F. Baker is the recipient of the 2010 Citation of Merit for outstanding achievement and meritorious service in engineering.

As he began contemplating college, a counselor at William Baker’s high school in Fulton, Mo. urged the young man to take an aptitude test, and not surprisingly, Baker scored well as a potential engineer. It’s something that runs in his family; both of his grandfathers were civil engineers. In the fall of 1971, Baker enrolled in the University of Missouri to study engineering and history.

The first inkling of his future career path as a structural engineer, whose portfolio of accomplishment would include the world’s tallest building, came in his freshman year.

“Coming from a small town school, I was taking a calc class at the same time I was using calculus in my engineer classes,” Baker said. “I found that I enjoyed the challenge of the theoretical and the physical at the same time.”

He felt himself drawn to the “physical, measurable, demonstrable math” of civil engineering, and dropped his pursuit of history.

“I had good professors in civil and mechanical engineering,” Baker said. “I graduated in 1975, right after the Arab Oil Embargo, and was hired to work for an oil company down in Houston, along with many of my other classmates.”

He spent four years performing various tasks such as construction, plant engineering, and oil and gas reservoir management before deciding that multi-phase flow, while mathematically challenging – and enjoyably so – just didn’t satisfy his additional need for the physical aspect of engineering.

“I decided to give up a very good job to go to grad school at Illinois,” said Baker, who finished his master’s degree in structural engineering in one year, but stayed on for an additional year, taking extra classes and attending lectures.

The prestigious Chicago architectural and engineering firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) hired Baker when he graduated in 1981. The work agreed with him, and he was named a partner in 1996. Baker’s work can be found worldwide. He has designed everything from small, specialized structures to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

At any given time, Baker and his SOM team are involved in a dozen diverse projects. Among other current projects, he is working on a house in the eastern U.S.; a competition for a soon-to-be second tallest building in the world, located in Korea; a 100-foot-tall, stainless steel artwork for the University of Nebraska and a house in California that utilizes new technologies.

The award-winning structural engineer said that he tells his employees not to turn on their computers too early in the design process. He encourages them to come up with a clear idea and to keep it simple. “Keep reducing it to its essence,” Baker advises. “Don’t get lost in the complexity. I love the design process and trying to solve the problem.”

“I carry a sketchbook with me everywhere to work it out manually.”

One of the recent “problems” Baker solved was engineering an innovative way to construct the world’s tallest manmade structure with only a small amount of floor area. His buttressed core structural system, which consists of a hexagonal core reinforced by three buttresses that from a Y shape, allows the structure to support itself. The design moves loads in a smooth path from the top of the tower all the way down to the foundation.

“I had devised a similar system for an earlier project in Korea, when it occurred to me it could go much higher with some changes” Baker said. “I started with this system and kept refining and simplifying it.  When something seems suddenly simple, you wonder why you didn’t think of it before.”

William F. Baker is the 2010 recipient of the Mizzou Engineering Alumni Association’s Citation of Merit, awarded annually to a distinguished alumnus or alumna who has made a significant impact to the engineering profession. He will be recognized at a luncheon in his honor on Saturday, March 20 during Engineers’ Week.