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Ahmad Rahimian: The pinnacle of success

March 2012 » Cover Story
Thirst for knowledge has led structural engineer to put his name behind some of the world's signature skyscrapers.
Susan Wallace
Ahmad Rahimian in front of Torre Mayor in Mexico City.

In the early 1980s, a young Iranian man left his homeland amidst turbulence that eventually led to a revolution to pursue higher education in America — far from turmoil. With an undergraduate degree in structural engineering from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran (Iran's equivalent of MIT), Ahmad Rahimian set his sights on furthering his education and becoming a capable engineer — a premier profession in his native land.

Thirty years later, Rahimian is the chief executive of WSP Cantor Seinuk, a leading structural engineering firm based in New York and a division of WSP Group, a global engineering firm with offices in five continents. His projects and talents have earned him international recognition, including the 2007 AISC Special Achievement Award, the 2005 ASCE-CERF Charles Pankow Award for innovation and the ENR Excellence Award as one of the Top 25 Newsmakers of 2003. In 2011, he was named to Structural Engineer's Power List. Rahimian also holds a U.S. patent for seismic protective design. In spite of his talent and notoriety, Rahimian's ego remains in check. He's open, approachable and devoted to his profession, his projects, his company, his family, and the up-and-coming young engineers who share the same dream that young Iranian student had in the '80s.

Born in 1955, Rahimian grew up in Tehran. Even when he was young, he always wanted to study more as he grew up with thousands of books in his father's library. A math and science virtuoso, he remembers taking apart radios and phones as a child to see how they worked and the challenge of putting them back together before his parents got home. As Rahimian progressed in school, he was drawn to engineering.

"In Iran, the most desired professions were medical and engineering. I was shocked when I came to America and found out that engineers were not at the top here," he said.

Besides that shock, Rahimian adjusted well to his newfound American life and embraced the best of both cultures.

Continuing his educational achievements, Rahimian sought a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from New York University Polytechnic Institute, which he earned in 1980. He continued his postgraduate studies at Polytechnic. It wasn't long after that he started working at the office of Irwin G. Cantor, which would later become part of the WSP conglomerate as WSP Cantor Seinuk. He liked the work and the talented principals — and thrived. In 1986, Rahimian earned his Ph.D. from NYU Polytechnic Institute, where his studies included a focus seismic engineering.

At a project meeting for Tower 3 at World Trade Center. From left, Richard Rogers, Larry Silverstein, Ahmad Rahimian and Richard Paul.

His career took off.

At Cantor Seinuk, Rahimian worked on difficult problems, conceptualizing and analyzing natural forces. But it wasn't just his work — but also his attitude — that pushed him up the ladder. He credits three attributes, which he encourages all young engineers to embrace: 1) Have the right attitude and be a team member — just like a team sport; 2) Get the job done, no matter what. Like the Nike slogan — Just Do It. Nowadays, unfortunately, people make many excuses; and, 3) Be passionate about learning. There's always something new to learn.

Rahimian said he learned a lot from observing the partners at Cantor Seinuk in the early years. He would go to meetings with them and saw first-hand how they managed all sorts of issues and situations.

"The art of communication is very important. Many people don't pay attention to that," he said. "Engineering is a service-oriented profession and can't be treated as a commodity. Otherwise, you will sink to the mediocrity."

Structural engineering is also a mixture of science and art. Good structural engineers feel and breathe this. It goes beyond textbooks and outside of academics.

"It's a great field. Enjoyable. The process of creativity and dealing with nature's forces gives you a level of respect and appreciation for nature," said Rahimian, also an adjunct associate professor at Polytechnic University Graduate School of Civil Engineering and Cooper Union School of Architecture.

In the office.

As a confluence of art and science, each of Rahimian's projects has posed unique challenges. Take the Torre Mayor in Mexico City, a 55-story office tower with 12 parking levels and four subterranean levels. The project started in the early 1990s, not too long after the disastrous 1985 earthquake, in an area that sits in a severe seismic risk zone. The structural system incorporates ductile moment frames and super-diagonals, with the aid of a supplemental damping system. The system utilizes powerful shock absorbers, a technology that was originally developed for the defense industry but was declassified after the Soviet Union collapse at the end of the Cold War. Inaugurated in 2003, the Torre Mayor was the first new building to use this cutting-edge technology in a high seismic zone in such a unique way. Despite its hazardous location, the Torre Mayor is one of the world's safest buildings. So safe that its occupants didn't even notice a 7.6 magnitude earthquake — which the tower survived with aplomb. Rahimian holds the U.S. patent for coupled truss systems with damping for seismic protection of buildings, a system implemented in Torre Mayor.

Rahimian is also deeply involved with what would be the world's tallest building, the Nakheel Tower in Dubai, which would be over one kilometer (or 3,281 feet) tall. (The project is currently stalled due to the economic downturn.) Rahimian, who led the structural design for the project, addressed the challenging height of the building by creating an aerodynamic shape that would minimize the dangers of local wind storms. While construction is on hold, Rahimian said he appreciated the opportunity to work on project and the challenges it posed.

The list of projects bearing Rahimian's stamp fills multiple pages and includes well-known skyscrapers all over the globe, such as the Trump World Tower, The Orion, Hearst Tower, the US Open Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the London Bridge Tower.

"One World Trade Center will always hold a special place in my mind and heart."

At a project meeting for Tower 2 at World Trade Center.

But there's one project to Rahimian's name that has had a profound effect on him: New York's new Freedom Tower, officially known now as One World Trade Center. With a height of 1,776 feet (significant in its reference to the year of America's independence), One World Trade Center, with a total gross area of 3.5 million square feet, will comprise 2.6 million square feet of office space, tenant amenity spaces, an observation deck, world-class restaurants and a 400-foot high illuminating spire. One World Trade Center, known as 1 WTC, is the main building of the new World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. The 105-story supertall skyscraper is being erected in the northwest corner of the 16-acre World Trade Center site, occupying the location where the original 8-story 6 World Trade Center once stood. The new structure will be unprecedented in terms of life safety and security.

"One World Trade Center will always hold a special place in my mind and heart," Rahimian said.

When asked how high we can expect future buildings to go, Rahimian becomes philosophical.

"Material strength is definitely a consideration but the industry is ever-changing," he said. "Limits will be set by the desire and aspirations of societies and economic realities. After all, people will only want to ride in an elevator for so long."

Despite his vast accomplishments, Rahimian remains excited about his profession and his projects.

Ahmad Rahimian with the late Enrique Martinez Romero at top floor of Torre Mayor in Mexico City.

"Every part of a project is exciting. The beginning is like a new puzzle to solve and at the end there is a sense of accomplishment," he said. "With the Internet, cloud (technology), advanced hardware and software, and BIM technology, we are all advancing to work better in sync to be able to eliminate problems before construction and minimize the challenges."

Another advantage to this hi-tech world is that less travel is required, though Rahimian doesn't hesitate to go to meetings regardless of the location — even the other side of the world.

With such professional dedication, it's no wonder Rahimian is also a devoted family man. He and his wife of almost 20 years, Maryam, have two daughters, Nora and Neda, ages 8 and 11. He said he loves to spend time with his family and have conversations with his daughters and tries to instill in them an appreciation for learning and for nature.

Rahimian's interests are also not restricted to skyscrapers; he is an avid reader, preferring scientific biographies. And he nurtures his creative side with painting when he finds time. While at first this may seem surprising, if one takes into account that Rahimian's mother was a math teacher and his dad is a poet, it all makes sense.

So, what does a world-renowned structural engineer and chief executive of a premier engineering firm want to be known for 20 years from now?

"Basically, that I don't have a large ego. An ego blurs your vision and can ruin your life and I've observed many very smart people who were impeded by their egos," Rahimian said.

He also lists the importance of having the right perspective as you go through life and the need to understand where the real values are coming from.

"I am blessed to have a great family and friends, and be associated with great and talented partners and colleagues — and great clients," he said. "I'll be happy only to be remembered as a good man, father and son who tried his best."

Susan Wallace is a freelance writer and co-owner of Vantage Point Communications livingin Fayetteville, Ark. She can be contacted at susan@vpointcommunications.com.

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