Richard Weingardt: The pioneer spirit

November 2012 » Cover Story
Renaissance man of structural engineering started early and dove in deeply.
Maureen Foody

It isn't an easy feat for one person to visit all seven continents. Nor is it an easy feat to establish a company at 27. But that is exactly how a lifetime of professional and personal adventuring began for Richard Weingardt.

Concourse B at Denver International Airport, the longest building on site. Richard Weingardt stands in the structure's central core. His firm was the structural engineer-of-record for all three of DIA's massive concourses – A, B and C. The $5 billion project received ASCE's Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award in 1997.

Born in a small town outside of Denver, Weingardt came from a family steeped in the tradition of building, starting with his father, Martin, who operated a general contracting company, and reaching all the way back to his great grandfather. Weingardt grew up admiring his father, both for what he did and how he did it on his own, which he described as "the true American dream." During a family vacation to the Royal Gorge Bridge in Cañon City, Col., one of the world's highest suspension bridges, Weingardt decided he wanted to be like his father and build structures that challenged the status quo in construction.

After graduating as the valedictorian of his nun-operated Catholic high school, Weingardt headed to the University of Colorado to follow his interest, engineering. Weingardt intended to follow architectural engineering but became so enthralled by structural engineering classes, such as analysis of indeterminate structures, statics and dynamics and projects using steel and concrete, that he switched his focus. He described this decision as an essential move to his later career.

The largest single construction project ever done by Jefferson County, the Jeffco Courthouse, has become known as the "Taj Mahal of Colorado." Weingardt Engineers earned an impressive silver medal from the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation for their unique hollow-truss, tension ring supporting the facility's distinctive central dome.

"I chose classes that interested me but also thought were going to lead me into the profession on the right footing," he says. So he continued onward, enrolling in the master's program at the University of Colorado, where he worked with and analyzed thin shell concrete designs inspired by the work of Félix Candela.

Stepping out and up
After receiving his master's, Weingardt began working for the Bureau of Reclamation in their rotational engineer program. He spent his first year rotating through four different departments of focus. His projects were diverse, ranging from power plants, dams and bridges to transmission towers and even work on theoretical analysis. During his second year with the Bureau, Weingardt worked on a project in northern California that combined a dam, fish hatchery and power plant. He then went back to Denver to work for a private firm that helped build the old Denver Convention Center before deciding to step out on his own at age 27 and form Weingardt Consultants Inc.With the help of his father's contacts throughout Colorado, Weingardt was immediately able to start taking on large projects, such as a few large buildings for colleges – from student unions to fine arts centers – and even a beef packing plant.

Weingardt has now had a hand in almost 5,000 construction projects, all of which were challenging in their own way. One particular challenge was the Integrated Teaching Lab at The University of Colorado, which was "a building that was copied from a successful concept but this building had to be used as a teaching tool for the students, so we had to make sure as many structural systems were exposed as possible," he says. Weingardt was also the structural engineer for Harrah's New Orleans Jazz Casino, a major building that took the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and was even used by the New Orleans police and fire departments as their staging headquarters for the recovery efforts shortly after the tragedy.

The $840 million Harrah's New Orleans Jazz Casino, located in city center, is one of the largest casinos in the world. Its intricate Weingardt-engineered steel superstructure encases approximately 1 million square feet of space and bears on the old foundations left from the abandoned 1963 Rivergate Convention Center.

Weingardt also remembers a project building agricultural mills in Russia that presented a particular challenge of language and culture. The design documents had to be in both English and Russian, metric and imperial measurements. Furthermore, many of the products used had to be shipped from the U.S. and the team had to integrate and redesign many components on site. This proved especially challenging for the concrete elements, which were originally designed based on a concrete strength of 3,000 pounds per square inch, but concrete that was available in Russia at that time was barely at the 1,000 psi level.

This kind of quick thinking has helped Weingardt build projects on six of the seven continents and has also helped him to keep a flexible mind and to take whatever projects come his way on their own standards.

Thought leader
One of Weingardt's favorite sayings is: "The world is run by those who show up as leaders, not just bystanders."

And step up he has, from being an industry leader for over 45 years to giving lectures on six continents, to still maintaining a heavy presence in his local community in Colorado.

"You need to enjoy life but you also need to set the pace," Weingardt says. "Meaningful hobbies and participation in your community helps to develop lasting friends that you can depend on but reaching outside the industry is important because you can kick around ideas with those who aren't engineers but good thinkers with broad perspectives on the world."

A big part of Weingardt's charm is his multi-dimensional approach to his work and life. He is willing to take risks – from venturing into literally unmapped territory on land to innovating designs that are both cost-effective and award-winning strategies. Weingardt believes that it is through these various facets that one has to work hard at not only being a tremendous engineer but also becoming a leader within the industry and in society as a whole.

Numerous Richard Weingardt oil paintings depicting the American western frontier hang in corporate offices around the globe, and signed/numbered reproductions of several such as "Rocky Mountain High: Indian Encampment at the Continental Divide" (shown) are distributed internationally.

"To do this job right requires you to be a smart person, which could be applied to anything," Weingardt says. "Every engineer should develop the other attributes of —€˜yourself' aside from just the technical portions of the work."

Weingardt Engineers construction documents for the Grand Hotel on Haewoondae Beach were completed in both Korean and English and metric and English measurement systems. The 500-unit, multi-story concrete structure features very thin flat-plate concrete slabs to keep the overall building height within rigid zoning limits.

Renaissance man
Of course, Weingardt lives his advice well beyond his duties as a structural engineer. And he is a man of many passions. Weingardt has written and published several books, from Sound the Charge, which is a history book of the last Plains Indian Battle on the Central Plains, to Circles in the Sky: The Life and Times of George Ferris, the first full-length biography on Ferris, who was an important engineer within structural steel bridge building known for inventing the Ferris Wheel. Weingardt is also known as a painter and some of his works hang all around the world. His oil paintings depict a great admiration for Native Americans and immigrants who must have experienced life as it used to be on the High Plains of northeastern Colorado, where Weingardt hails from. So he depicts their lives how they were: as travelers, as workers and as settlers.

Weingardt also enjoys exploring the world, not just through painting and reflection but by adventuring into places that most people know very little of, let alone explore. One such trip includes a trek through Russia, when Weingardt and his wife Evelyn sought to discover his family roots. They had hired a guide to help them through the small towns that had very few, if any, roads, made mostly of muddy paths. Even trickier was that neither Weingardt nor Evelyn spoke any Russian, while their guide only spoke the native language. Nevertheless, Weingardt beams about how you "meet the real people of that country and that region, you make a real relationship with them by using sign language or writing or even just pointing."

"These trips off the beaten path are difficult for most. Being that far off the beaten path is not for everyone, but now (Evelyn) is just as big of a pursuer of these as I am. It's her now who is asking me, —€˜When are we gonna go on our next adventure, Rich?'"

Evelyn and Rich met in high school, where they were the American sweethearts of head cheerleader and the football star who settled down for good in college and have been married for 53 years. They have three children, with no grandchildren yet but plenty of grand-pets.

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at Maureen.t.f@gmail.com.

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