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Gill Harris: A hall-of-famer who brought computerization to metal building engineering and drafting

2012 Metal Construction Hall of Fame

Gill Harris

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 industry.

"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 book."

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 marketplace."

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.

"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 award."

Gill Harris

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 Fame.