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Interview: Kirk Harman, the Engineer Who Makes Philly's High-Rises Stand Up

His firm is behind 10 of the high-rises currently under construction

When it comes to high-rises, developers and architects tend to get all the praise. But the two are nothing if their sleek skyscrapers can't actually be built. And in Philadelphia, there's one man who's become the go-to guy to make sure that happens.

Meet Kirk Harman, CEO of the local structural engineering company the Harman Group. His firm is behind 10 of the 29 high-rises currently under construction in Philadelphia, from One Riverside on the Schuylkill to giant retail and residential development East Market.

Curbed Philly sat down with Harman in his King of Prussia office and talked about just exactly what his team does and how he's watched this city grow—literally—in his 33 years of practice.

You received your masters from Drexel. What was it about Philly that made you want to stay here and open up your firm?

I was working down in Rockville, Maryland outside of DC doing a lot of work there. But DC is a rather low-rise city since it has a height restriction. And structural engineers are excited by height. With Philly being more home to me and my wife we thought, it would be great to come back. So in 1984 we came up here and established what is the Harman Group. And it was right about that time [the city] changed that height restriction here.

Your team is behind at least 10 of the high-rises under construction in Philly right now. At what point in the process do you usually come in for these projects?

First and foremost we're structural engineers, so we design the steel and the concrete and the foundations and the frame that you see as the skeleton of the building initially. The taller a building gets, the need to resist the wind and so forth creates a need to really make provisions for the core of the building early on. So that once you get down the road on the structure, or the design of the project, you don’t get surprises. So generally on taller buildings we’re involved in the conceptual level.

With Carl Dranoff's One Riverside, he and Cecil Baker said they wanted to design and build a very slim, narrow building for that particular site. How did you work with them to make that happen?

That was a good example of us coming in early with the owner and the architect to achieve their development goals at the same time as creating a structure that was cost effective. As buildings get taller, the structure becomes a larger percentage of the cost. So it’s very important to integrate the development goals, the architectural goals, with a structure early on so that we don’t impede the cost with structure after the fact.

It’s a lot of back and forth. We’ll come up with alternatives. Sometimes some of them don’t work for the owner and the architect. But if we give them alternatives, the very lowest cost alternative might have impact on something else that makes the overall plan work. So it’s a really cooperative process between owner, architect, and various engineering companies that are involved in any project.

You recently opened a second office in New York. Can you talk about the differences between building here in Philly and in New York?

The New York market is a very high-price sales market. It’s slowing down a little bit now, but for the last 4-5 years, foreign money has really been coming in and buying up real estate. Philadelphia doesn’t have quite that same level of outside buyers. So consequently prices are much lower. They can just afford certain things we can’t, like longer spans of space between columns, for example.

What are some of the key factors that go into building a high-rise on your end?

When you design high-rise buildings, one of the first key issues is the movement of that building in wind. So if you build a high-rise office building, because of all the activity that goes on there, you probably won’t notice it very much. But in a residential high rise, at night when it’s quiet and you're trying to go to sleep, you’re going to feel or notice movement in a building.

There are companies that can do wind tunnel testing on a model of the building. They'll blow wind on it from 360 degrees, which tell us how that building is going to move. We’re able to tune the building to reduce that movement down to a level that is maybe not imperceptible, but less likely to be perceptible.

Which projects are you most excited to see come to fruition?

East Market is quite a project. It’s essentially a city block although they’re preserving a lot of buildings that exist. And it has a lot of great and interesting challenges. The sheer size and interaction with the subway on one side and the streets against the other three sides, plus there's two towers on top and the big retail element. It's just a great project for Philadelphia.

That must have been a project where you were involved early on.

Very much so. We were asked, "Can you save parts of the exterior foundation walls?" "Can you do this or that?" We went through many, many alternatives of what we could and could not keep. How do we deal with the subway system? We looked into more parking levels, and the difficulties of doing that.

Very importantly, that building including the towers is an all-steel structural system. Usually residential and hotel are concrete. That's not normal in Philadelphia, but it came down to construction costs. So it’s actually a fairly unusual project.

It must really be an exciting time for you.

It is. But in the end, the look of a project is the product of the architect’s vision and the owner’s vision. Our part is to make the buildings stand up—and keep people comfortable when they’re inside.

Interview has been edited and condensed.