A Golden Era: Walter P Moore’s Larry Griffis Reflects on 50 Years as a Structural Engineer

A Golden Era: Walter P Moore’s Larry Griffis Reflects on 50 Years as a Structural Engineer

March 2, 2023

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Structure Magazine.

Larry Griffis, P.E., senior consultant in the Structures Group at Walter P Moore, is the firm’s longest current employee, recently celebrating 50 years with the firm. Larry is a nationally renowned structural engineer with extensive experience contributing to more than 80 major buildings throughout the U.S. and internationally. His vast expertise involves the design of long-span roof structures, high-rise buildings, composite steel and concrete systems, analyzing large structures under wind and seismic forces, and designing retractable roof stadiums and ballparks. Many projects under his direction have received numerous awards, including the American Council of Engineering Companies Texas Chapter’s Eminent Conceptor Award, representing the top engineering projects in Texas.

He has also received the Kimbrough Award, which is the American Institute of Steel Construction’s (AISC) most prestigious honor recognizing engineers who are universally acclaimed as the pre-eminent steel designers of their era and have made outstanding contributions to the steel industry through their work. In addition, Larry received AISC’s TR Higgins Lectureship Award, which recognizes an outstanding lecturer and author whose technical paper or papers published during the eligibility period are considered an outstanding contribution to the engineering literature on fabricated structural steel, and AISC’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Larry has also been named to the National Academy of Engineering and is a Fellow in both the Structural Engineering Institute and the American Concrete Institute.

What has been your favorite engineering project and why?

This is a tough question because there are many iconic and exciting projects to choose from. One thing that was very fortuitous in my career was being around when movable roof stadiums came on the scene. Bank One Ballpark (now known as Chase Field) in Phoenix, Arizona, was the first retractable roof in the U.S., and it was fraught with design and construction challenges. I was hired as a consultant with Schuff Steel. I spent six months wading through all the vast information on that project and learned a lot about moveable roof stadiums—how to design them and what can go wrong—it was a great lesson for me. So when we got our first opportunity to work on a movable roof for Minute Maid Park in Houston, I was pretty well versed in the challenges and solutions I knew were coming. Working through all those challenges for the firm’s first moveable roof stadium project, and developing a relationship with Uni-Systems Engineering, who has been a partner in almost all of our moveable roof stadiums as the mechanization consultant, helped solve a lot. I was fortunate to have a talented team behind me for Minute Maid Park; I was just the team’s leader, but it was certainly a very satisfying project.

What best advice can you give a new engineer joining the firm?

My advice would be, “being a structural engineer is not an easy profession,” particularly when you work on large complex projects. We have to take our responsibility very seriously. We live in an era when owners, architects, and clients want projects done faster, better, and cheaper. Many do not understand the challenges we face when engineering large structures. It takes patience and a sense of responsibility that the work being done impacts public safety because we are dealing with heavy loads, long spans, and tall structures in many cases. Furthermore, young engineers should seek advice when they think it is needed. Remember, you may be the only person checking your work in this fast-paced environment. Take responsibility very seriously, and reach out when you need help.

What is the most challenging project you have worked on and why?

Early in my career, during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I had a chance to work on many tall buildings. One that I am proud of is the Three Houston Center building, where our corporate headquarters is located. I was actually the engineer of record for the building. It is a 52-story composite-framed building, and I learned a lot of the things an engineer needs to know about how to design and build such a tall building.

Based on your past experiences as a structural engineer, is there anything you would have done differently?

I was fortunate enough to know and work with Bill LeMessurier, one of the great tall building designers responsible for the Citicorp Center (now known as the Citigroup Center) in New York. I met Alan Davenport and Jack Cermak and learned about wind tunnel testing. I felt fortunate to work on some iconic structures and manage our enormous talent at Walter P Moore. People threw challenging projects at me, and I worked hard to be sure I was up to the task. If I did not know something, I figured out how to do it. I was fortunate to have so many people I met in professional circles and at the firm who helped me get these projects engineered and built.

What key changes have you seen in the industry over the last 50 years?

Two things come to mind. The Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel is one of the most critical achievements in structural engineering. For many of the structures being built, whether they are long-span bridges or super high-rise buildings, none would be possible without the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel. Second are the advances in steel, concrete, and composite structures. We have seen concrete go from 7,000 or 8,000 psi compressive strength to 18,000 or 20,000 psi. The admixtures have made concrete stronger and easier to work with in the various new forming systems that have been developed. We used to say you could work a lot faster using steel, but now you can build a concrete building almost as fast as you can build a steel building. The advances in reinforced concrete, particularly in tall buildings, have been a significant achievement over the years. And we now have higher strength and more specialized steels to use in our building and bridge designs.

What accomplishment are you most proud of outside of a structural engineering project?

Early in my career, I was mentored by Walter P. Moore, Jr., who pushed me to get involved in professional activities and meet people in the industry. I am grateful for that because I luckily met many people in many areas of our practice, including wind tunnel and other consultants, researchers, and professors. I could rely on these contacts to help me throughout my career. Being involved in professional activities is enormously rewarding, and I encourage young engineers to get involved professionally, such as by publishing or contributing their time to a professional committee. You will meet many people and make lifelong friends that will help you throughout your career.

Lawrence G. Griffis, P.E., is a Senior Principle and President of the Structures Division of Walter P Moore, headquartered in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at lgriffis@walterpmoore.com.