Bracing for the Big One
Dub Northcutt Is Making California a Safer Place When Earthquakes Strike
When W.T. “Dub” Northcutt was preparing to graduate from high school in Pasadena, Texas, in 1958, his ambition was to become an auto mechanic.
He loved tearing cars apart and putting them back together. He could think of nothing more exciting than doing that for a living. However, his stepfather took him aside.
“My stepfather and I were good friends,” Northcutt says. “He convinced me that taking engineering in college would help me learn more about automobiles.”
Northcutt enrolled in mechanical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin and while in college switched over to an architectural engineering major.
It was a decisive step for the president of Structural Technology Consultants Inc. of San Diego. Now his firm, which had $800,000 in gross revenues in 1999, has nine employees.
Along the way, he became an expert in designing earthquake-resistant buildings.
His professional specialization now includes structural engineering for major buildings and deciding what it takes to retrofit for quake resistance. He has also worked as an expert forensic engineering witness. That’s in addition to designing pre-cast concrete structures and construction project administration.
Northcutt graduated in 1964 from the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. He also received a master’s degree in structural engineering from Okalahoma State University in 1966.
It was in 1967, while working at Rohr Inc. in Chula Vista, that he designed his first building.
“We were working on an automated warehouse inventory system with overhead racks from which you could automatically lift pallets,” Northcutt said. “I put a roof on top of the racks and the whole structure became a building.”
His work at the defense contractor was enough to win him a draft exemption two weeks after his supervisor contacted the draft board so his notice of induction could be rescinded.
While earthquake-resistant design was mentioned in classes when he was in college, it wasn’t something he studied in Texas or Okalahoma, he says.
“It was while I was working at Rohr that I realized the importance of analyzing structures to see if they are quake-resistant,” he says.
That interest has developed into a niche business. His company, which took its current form in 1990, has designed the two-story steel frame office building for Buie Communities in San Diego.
He and his staff also designed a three-story, steel frame office building at Palomar Airport Center in Carlsbad, Drew Ford’s parking structure in La Mesa and the city of San Diego’s Miramar Cogeneration Facility.
He’s also been involved in several major retrofitting projects to help make existing buildings safe. Those projects include the strengthening of an historic 80-year-old auditorium at San Diego State University’s Imperial Valley campus in Calexico and the upgrading of a 100-year-old Victorian house on Second Avenue in the Bankers Hill neighborhood of San Diego.
Other local seismic upgrading projects include work on the Bay Medical Plaza in Chula Vista and the Gaines Street YMCA acrobatics facility in San Diego.
“My career has been mainly with three good outfits: from Rohr to the city of San Diego (where he was a building plan reviewer), then to San Diego Pre-Stressed Concrete Co.,” Northcutt says.
It was while working for Tru-Span Structures in Chula Vista, which was purchased by another company in 1987, that he decided to go into business for himself.
“The new buyer wanted me to relocate to Irwindale and I was already established here,” Northcutt says. “I was tired of working for others.”
He said he initially benefited from partner Dick Miller’s business contacts.
“Once people found out we were in business, they started coming to us,” Northcutt said. Three years later, the business was merged with California Structural Engineering Inc. of Kearny Mesa and became Structural Technology Consultants.
The three most important rules he follows while designing buildings are:
– Make sure to have a quality engineering design.
– Be careful to meet building owners’ financial needs when designing something.
– Try the utmost to keep with the owner’s construction schedule.
Dave Von Behren, vice president of Enniss Constructors Inc. of Lakeside, worked with Northcutt on several projects.
“Dub is a very good engineer because he approached the task from the practical side of what is done in the field,” Von Behren says. “Dub designs stuff that can be built easily in the field and it’s engineering that works well out in the field as well. That’s because he has a wealth of knowledge on the pre-stressed concrete business as well as all concrete and steel structures.”
Northcutt and his wife, Linda, spend a lot of their spare time camping in their motor home. Dos Picos Park, near Ramona; Potrero, southwest of Campo; and Silver Strand State Beach are their favorite getaways, he says.
They have season tickets to the Old Globe Theatre, where they enjoy the annual Shakespeare Festival. His favorite plays are “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
He enjoys golf as well.
“I’m doing well if I can break 95; then I’m happy,” he says.
Northcutt says he enjoys working on his 1955 Ford Thunderbird convertible, while his main vehicle is a 1989 Mercedes 560SL.
“I love that old T-bird. There is so much room under the hood it’s easy to work on,” he says.
A member of the Structural Engineers Association of California, Northcutt is on call as a volunteer if ever an earthquake should strike. He became a volunteer after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
His job will be to evaluate buildings to see if they are still safe and sound.
He says he is happy the state revised its Uniform Building Code after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to set tougher standards for building in areas where there are active earthquake faults.
“Now you have to know how close a building is going to be to a fault and design accordingly,” Northcutt says.
He cautioned there still are plenty of older buildings that need to be retrofitted for earthquake resistance.
“We do have buildings Downtown that were built a long time ago without seismic considerations,” Northcutt says. “The Rose Canyon Fault is a Class B fault and runs right through Downtown. While it doesn’t have the same potential for damage as the San Andreas Fault, which is a Class A fault, there still is some potential for damage.”
Northcutt has been an active member of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Chula Vista for nearly 20 years. He has also been a guitarist at church services most of that time.
During a two-week period once a year, his church shelters homeless people as part of the Interfaith Shelter Network, Northcutt spends nights there and cooks breakfast and lunch for the homeless people.
“It’s a way of giving back to the community,” Northcutt says. “It also makes me appreciate what I have.”
The Rev. Chuck Sundry, pastor of St. Mark’s, had praise for Northcutt’s participation in the musical programs at the church. Northcutt was the contemporary music leader for 15 years and still teaches others how to play the guitar.
“He has been on our church council, helps when we host the homeless and has just been an active, faithful member for all of the 18 years I have been here,” Sundry said.