W. Lee Shoemaker: An engineer’s engineer who has guided research for the metal building industry during the last two decades

2015 Metal Construction Hall of Fame

By Paul Deffenbaugh

Shoemaker  Lee

When W. Lee Shoemaker, Ph.D., P.E., completed his undergraduate education at Duke University, Durham, N.C., he half expected to work for for a large design/ engineering firm, but the best offer came from Avondale Shipyards, New Orleans, so he took it. His Duke engineering education was very broad and served him well in his new position working to design ships. But the most important characteristic that served him well in this job and all future endeavors was his curiosity.

“There is always a learning curve in any job,” Shoemaker says, “and I enjoyed that new challenge. Learning something new was a lot of fun.”

At Avondale, he also began a lifelong study and analysis of steel, which has served him most notably in the last 21 years that Shoemaker has worked as the director of research and engineering at the Metal Building Manufacturers Association (MBMA). During his tenure at MBMA, Shoemaker has supervised more than $4 million in research contracts to universities and testing laboratories. That research has elevated the industry’s knowledge about these important issues and others:

  • Wind load applications
  • Design procedures for earthquakes
  • Cold-formed steel design
  • Steel optimization
  • Sustainability
  • Slippery roof panel surface conditions

The lessons from his very first job have applied directly to his work on these research topics. “The lesson I learned from shipbuilding,” he says, “is that even the smallest assignments and smallest details had significant impact on the overall project … In metal building systems, we have a lot of different components interacting, and sometimes we focus too much on the main parts of the building.”

“Metal buildings are emblematic of the metal construction industry-comprised of many components that form an integrated, cohesive and imaginative system.”

W. Lee Shoemaker, Ph.D., P.E.

While at Avondale, Shoemaker completed his master’s degree in civil engineering from Tulane University, New Orleans. He went on to complete his Ph.D. at Duke in 1983, and did a seven-year turn as an assistant professor at Auburn University, Auburn, Ala. While there he was principal investigator on 10 research projects, and worked independently as a structural engineering consultant and fraud investigator for the Alabama Office of the Attorney General.

His next job was in Philadelphia, designing tower cranes for Cornell Crane Manufacturing. He worked for four years as the vice president of engineering and was responsible for engineering, quality control, production and testing of cranes fabricated from steel. Again, his curiosity and desire to learn new skills served him well, but this job also had an added element. “The crane manufacturing was a very high-pressure job because of designing tower cranes that were working thousands of feet over the streets of Philadelphia,” he says. “There’s a lot of responsibility with that.”

But when Shoemaker got the opportunity to move to Cleveland and take the position at MBMA, he leapt at the chance. It presented new challenges that were unique from the positions he had held previously. The MBMA position works to support the goals of the association, which is to increase market share for metal buildings, making metal buildings the first choice in construction. At this stage, that is quite a challenge.

“After being around for 60 years,” says Shoemaker, “we have solved all the technical issues with metal buildings. But we’re constantly trying to improve. We want to make metal buildings better. Utilize new materials such as higher grade steel. Make more efficient use of materials. Expand the use of metal buildings. They’ve gone from mostly industrial and warehouse to using them for any application that’s out there. That presents some technical challenges.”

Those technical challenges fall in two basic categories. One can be called the performance criteria: making sure that metal buildings used in new applications perform as they should in all varieties of conditions. Consequently, Shoemaker has directed research that addresses seismic issues, wind load issues and sustainability issues. Shoemaker’s role is to form the teams of technical people to help design the research and execute it. He works with universities and testing laboratories to conduct the research on performance issues.

The other category can be called authority criteria. MBMA constantly needs to monitor technical issues in the construction industry and ensure that codes and standards being written by governing bodies do not undermine metal building systems. For example, new seismic codes written after the 1994 Northridge earthquake caused MBMA to do research to prove that metal building systems met those new codes.

Shoemaker’s greatest strength for this position is not necessarily his strength as an engineer, but his ability to influence people. Much of that authority resides in his engineering abilities. “You have to have a strong technical background when you are trying to influence people,” Shoemaker says. “I have to understand the basis for the changes we’re trying to present. Having the understanding to bring in other experts. Know about the technical basis. Having that ‘P.E.’ after your name is really important when you’re going in front of a code body.”

As much as MBMA and its research partners try to be proactive and find new challenges and projects to support the industry, the most valuable work can be reactive to industry events. “Invariably, there’s always something that comes up that we had no idea we would be learning about,” Shoemaker explains. “As an example we’re proud of, OSHA started looking at fall protection and that grew into safety issue for steel erectors, which made them start looking at epoxy paints that can be slippery. All of the sudden, OSHA is talking about whether a surface is too slippery for a worker to walk on.”

Shoemaker gathered experts who developed slip tests (“There’s just some weird science going on there,” he says), analyzing what other experts were doing and figuring out the right way to approach it. The association ended up forming a coalition of affected steel organizations, defined the research and put together several projects. Shoemaker’s role in helping to lead the research and pull together the teams evolved into influencing the ironworkers, U.S. Department of Labor administrators and other stakeholders. The result was voluntary guidelines instead of prescriptive rules that the industry now follows to ensure worker safety.

During the 21 years with MBMA, Shoemaker has been learning new things, following his curiosity and bringing his technical expertise to bear on an evolving industry. The result is he has been able to influence the interpretation of rules by relying on the authority of his engineering knowledge and a strong foundation of research he has helped direct. There is almost no element of the metal building industry that has not be influence by Shoemaker’s efforts. For that he has been inducted into the Metal Construction Hall of Fame.