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How Chicago’s Top Structural Engineers Blend Technical Expertise With Personal Communication

Klein & Hoffman's Michelle Ryland reviewing structural project plans with Klein & Hoffman AE team members.

Kathleen Strnad likes to say that her most memorable engineering client was a sea lion. As part of the structural engineering team at Chicago-based Klein & Hoffman, Strnad has worked on numerous projects at the Shedd Aquarium, from assessing and helping preserve century-old exterior skylights and columns to designing exhibits and environments for the aquarium’s many inhabitants. 

When it came time to design the structural acrylic glass and stainless steel that made up the sides of the Grainger Pool Sea Lion exhibit, Strnad realized the panels would have to stand up against more than just a standard load for a guardrail. 

“Talking to the Shedd mammals team and the trainers, we learned that the sea lions like to play and bump up against the walls,” said Strnad, a senior associate at Klein & Hoffman. “I never thought I would need to know the land speed, water speed and cross-sectional area of a sea lion, but here I was making those calculations.” 

Strnad had to understand not only the strength of the materials she was working with and every detail of the structure she was designing, but how to translate real-world challenges — like sea lion behavior — into engineering numbers that she and the Shedd Aquarium could trust.

According to Klein & Hoffman CEO Homa Ghaemi, there are two major pillars to success in structural engineering: a deep knowledge of physical materials and the ability to find and communicate solutions to real-world problems. While a designer or an architect can lay out a perfect building on a screen, Ghaemi said, it takes a structural engineer with hands-on experience of how materials perform in nature to bring it to life. The other half of the battle is identifying and communicating the most appropriate solution to each problem.

Klein & Hoffman's Kathleen Strnad inspecting the trident atop the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago.

“Whether it’s a parking structure or a historic monument like the Merchandise Mart, everything we do is backed up with numbers and facts, but it’s up to us to tell the story about why the facts matter,” Ghaemi said. “If we can't bring people on board with our ideas, very little can be accomplished.”

Zelina Johnson, a senior associate at Klein & Hoffman, said one factor that attracted her to a role in structural engineering was getting to interface with so many different teams. As the engineer at dozens of commercial property renovation projects around Chicago and its suburbs, Johnson interacts with general contractors, building owners, trade workers and any other stakeholders who happen to be on-site, and she said she relishes the liveliness of the construction site. 

Often, one of the most important real-world constraints for structural engineers is a client’s budget. Owners will call in a structural engineer when they are worried about part of their building deteriorating and they are searching for a way to make sure it can survive, but they don’t always have the funds to make full fixes. 

Klein & Hoffman's Anna Kornreich conducting a visual inspection of a water tank.

“Our job is to communicate the facts, determine several solutions and then work with the client to find the one that will fit their goals and budget,” Strnad said. “When it’s all fixed, and you see the calm that the client has, you get an appreciation for the process and why talking through concerns is such an important part of every project.”

Working within environmental and budgetary constraints can lead to outside-the-box solutions. Ghaemi described working on various projects near the lakefront in downtown Chicago, in buildings that had been struggling to keep their basements dry as Lake Michigan’s water table rose. Rather than fight nature by trying to keep the water out entirely, Ghaemi and her team devised a way to let water flow safely through the building. They designed an upside-down waterproofing system using a membrane and trenches — similar to the waterproofing plan for a public plaza, but flipped — to protect the basement mechanical and storage spaces. 

Many of the structural engineering worksites are somewhat more scenic. Michelle Ryland, an Associate V at Klein & Hoffman, described accompanying Strnad to inspect the structural safety of the statues that adorn the tops of Chicago's highest buildings, where very few people have likely ever tread. Anna Kornreich, an Associate I who began her work with Klein & Hoffman in February, said she very quickly had to conquer her fear of heights in order to inspect fire escapes and water tanks on residential buildings across the city.

Construction at the Newhart Family Theatre at Loyola University, Chicago

Watching weeks of calculations and research finally come to fruition can be a rush. Ghaemi described the engineering work she did to build the Newhart Family Theatre at Loyola University. Klein & Hoffman’s design removed three structural columns that had supported the weight of multiple floors, replacing them with a steel transfer truss. The project had required a deep understanding and respect for the materials and the structure around the theater, Ghaemi said, as well as the historic facade at the front of the building. As the contractor on-site used a hydraulic jack to remove the load on the columns, the joy of watching the project move forward was overwhelming.

“The best part about this job is that every day you feel like you’re diving into uncharted territory,” Ghaemi said. “The more you peel away the layers of each investigation, the denser and more invigorating it becomes. You can do all the preparation you can, but you have to expect that as soon as you get on-site, you’ll find something totally different. It’s truly humbling.”

This article was produced in collaboration between Klein & Hoffman and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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