Gill Harris saw the start of his career in civil
engineering interrupted twice by war; first by World War II and
then by the Korean War. When he finally settled into his career, he
was in Houston and answered an ad for Metallic Building Co., which
was looking for engineers. His work for the company introduced him
to metal buildings, but more importantly, it was the opportunity to
pursue a graduate degree at Rice University during a time that
influenced his life and the metal construction industry.
"Rice had probably one of the few, if not the only computer in
Houston in the middle-1950s," says Harris. Through his access to
computers, he learned of their potential and discovered ways to
translate that to improvements in the metal construction
"One time I turned the computer on and used a mop handle to prop
a paper receiver up so it could catch all the output. It ran all
night and had written an entire book for me. In all the
advancements of computers, they have never impressed me as much as
I was that morning moving from slide rule to a computer writing a
In 1962, C.L. Mitchell, founder of Ceco Building Systems,
Columbus, Miss., brought Harris in because "he needed somebody to
come in and improve the engineering. They were starting to realize
that they were not at the level to keep them competitive in the
By then, Harris was writing programs and really making computers
sing. He did the pioneering work at Ceco for automating the
engineering and drafting processes for manufacturing metal building
systems. The result of that automation is that Ceco could offer
metal buildings that required less steel, reducing cost.
Simultaneously, the more efficient drafting process speeded up
production dramatically. "We could increase production with the
same number of drafters," says Harris. "We didn't have to quadruple
our drafting department."
Those improvements affected Ceco and the metal building industry
as a whole. "That gave us a leapfrog jump ahead of the competition.
It put us at least 10 to 15 years ahead of the industry," Harris
says. By the time the industry caught up, it was through
standardized software that matched what Ceco had created.
Harris served at Ceco for 35 years, and through the company he
began working with the Metal Building Manufacturers Association
(MBMA) as chair of the technical committee. In 1987, he moved to
Cleveland to take the position as director of research and
engineering at MBMA. Under his direction, MBMA embarked on a
program to gather research conducted by various universities on the
effects of wind on metal buildings. Prior to that time, metal
buildings were required to meet wind specifications that were
established for high-rise construction. But through this research
and by advocating within the building code entities, Harris
successfully gathered support for code changes that allowed metal
buildings to compete on a level playing field.
Driving all of Harris's efforts-through Ceco, the MBMA and his
current work with the American Society of Civil Engineers windload
committee-is an underlying philosophy of professionalism in design.
"In any engineer's design, he observes certain constraints," says
Harris. "The most important and lowest is that of safety and
serviceability. You must put enough material and labor into a
structure so it's safe and serviceable. The truly professional
engineer has an upper level of economy. In the metal building
industry, you have to observe both constraints. If you don't, your
company will never get any jobs. What the pro is doing is designing
between the very narrow slip between safety and cost."
For his work on automation of engineering and drafting in metal
building systems, as well as his leading role in the adoption of
more consistent and appropriate building codes for metal buildings,
Gill Harris earns his spot in the Metal Construction Hall of
"Many thanks to Ceco Building Systems and its founder, C.L.
Mitchell for providing the platform on which to build such an
interesting career, to MBMA and to Dr. Marion Corey for his work in
rigid frame design automation. Steel has become the material of
choice for nonresidential construction. The metal construction
industry has been very good to me and has enhanced my career
immensely. I am extremely proud and deeply humbled by this