William F. Baker is the structural engineering partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and has been involved in projects such as the Burj Khalifa and James Turrell’s Roden Crater.

Architectural Record: How does the research you do help architecture to evolve?

We are developing tools that are useful in solving myriad problems. One of the biggest things we’re doing, which is just in its infancy, is optimizing for multiple variables. I try to come up with efficient structures that can turn into interesting architecture. Is there an ethical position for engineers? One could say they shouldn’t be wasteful.

Where do you see technological advances happening in the near future?

There is a lot happening with the development of new structural materials. Metallurgists and material scientists are using powerful computers to look at what happens at the molecular level in order to create the next generation of steel, concrete and other materials. These advanced structural materials will change "what is possible."

Is anything changing in terms of the way we construct buildings?

The automation of the construction site is happening quickly. The Burj Khalifa was basically a vertical factory. The large Japanese and Korean construction firms are spending a lot on R&D, and in the UK, Ray O'Rourke of Laing and O'Rourke has made some large grants to universities. But in the U.S., there isn't as much money spent in this area as there should be. We will probably see the results of this research overseas before it comes to the U.S.

How have computers changed the field?

Computational tools continue to develop rapidly. This is good for research (such as what we're doing with structural topology), but often bad for design. It enables engineers to design structures that are conceptually unclear; structures that are incomprehensible without a computer and sometimes incomprehensible even with a computer. I am urging designers to go back to "first principles" to develop structural concepts that are so clear and comprehensible that preliminary design can be done without a computer

Do you ever see things that make your blood boil?

I see things that strike me as ridiculous. A lot of the time I see a tall building design that’s dead on arrival. It’s not going to happen. And the client might spend $100 million bucks discovering that.

What have you learned as you've worked on major projects like the Burj Khalifa?

I've been studying why buildings don’t get built. When I was working on the Burj, every month someone was announcing a building that was as big or bigger than ours. One by one they got cancelled. Studying why buildings don’t get built is as interesting as studying why buildings do get built. Sometimes it is because the building has no clear structural idea and sometimes it's because the structure is inefficient.