A Fondness for Light: Celebrating Jim Harris’s Career and Retirement

A Fondness for Light: Celebrating Jim Harris’s Career and Retirement
By Valerie Hendel
January 25, 2019 | Seattle, WA |You could say that Jim Harris—or Lou Billy—took the scenic route in his forty-one-year career—not as many straight lines in the trajectory that you might expect from a structural engineer. But it has a solidity to it, built on years of dedication, commitment and relationships.
“Let’s get lunch,” says Lou. “Do you mind a walk?” I grab my coat and we stroll through downtown Seattle. 
Lou attended Oklahoma State University back in the ‘70s. “I went to school to be an architect,” he says. “But when I saw the work other students were producing, I decided I’d be a much better engineer. I graduated bottom of my class… of one. The student-to-teacher ratio was one-to-two.”
It’s clear that Lou has an affinity for architecture. He points to buildings as we make our way through downtown Seattle and tells me about the people who helped build them. It occurs to me that Lou’s view of the cityscape is very personal.
“So, every time you see one of these buildings, you see stories!” I say.
“Oh, yeah. Stories.” 
We land in a booth in the Virginia Inn on 1st and Virginia. The room is comfortable and worn. “It used to be a bar all across,” Lou says, and points to the prime corner seat by the front window. “There was a cigarette machine in that corner.” 
He next points out an elderly gentleman heading out in cap and wool coat, an architect who likely also has some internal dialogue about the buildings of Seattle. Lou points to several more architects or engineers who come and go or pass the front door while we wait. The Virginia Inn apparently served as a hot spot for building designers back in the day. “We used to sit in that corner at two in the afternoon and work. One day our client walked by and we waved and said, ‘We’re working hard on your project!’”
“What type of projects do you love working on?” I ask.
“Something that’s architecturally significant.”
“How do you define significant?”
“It’s an aesthetic.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“It might surprise you,” he says. “It’s a building no bigger than this room. The Lightbox.”
The Lightbox is a stunner, a multi-award-winning residence designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson for a photographer in Point Roberts, Washington. Lou never mentions any of the awards it’s received. 
He adds, “It took a whole lot of effort to make it look like no effort at all.”
Jim Harris joined Chalker Engineers (which would become eventually become PCS Structural Solutions) in Tacoma in 1978 and worked for two years. He was itchy for the energy of a big city. He went to Ray Chalker, his boss at the time. “I’ve been here two years and I’ve done everything three times. I need to move to Seattle.” As it happened, Chalker Engineering was planning to open an office in Seattle. Lou went. “Aaron Goodwin, Larry Karlson, and I did eighty percent of Waterfront Place,” explains Lou. Today, Waterfront Place is home to PCS’s Seattle office. 
Doug Goodwin, principal at PCS Structural Solutions, has worked with Lou since 1993, when Doug first came to PCS. When asked about Lou, Doug doesn’t hesitate. His hand hits the desk. “Lou is one of the best servants to his clients that I’ve ever seen. He will never let a client down. He won’t take a client if he doesn’t think he can do it.” Doug pulls up RHO Architects’ website and navigates to the Team page. He turns the screen and I read, Honorary Team Member, James Harris. I mull over the phrase servant to his clients.
Lou would eventually take a leave from Chalker for a bit of travel. He toured Western Europe and the Middle East as far as the Dead Sea, then headed to China in 1985 for a summer study program with his alma mater. He returned to Seattle and worked for several years at his own firm, then with Fossatti & Associates and Ratti Swenson Perbix & Clark. Lou approached Chalker again in 1991. He wanted to work with Chalker, but exclusively for his own clients. Doug Goodwin described the fierce loyalty of clients who followed Lou wherever he went. 
I bring it up with Lou. “How do you explain that loyalty?”
He never directly speaks to it, but something is clear: with Lou, there is no tension between the engineer and the architect. There’s something to be learned from Lou on this point, and I try to put my finger on it. “You speak architect.”
“I trained as an architect,” he says.
“What would you tell the new generation of engineers?”
“Don’t automatically say no. Try to look at a concern with a different perspective, and if the answer is still no, offer some alternatives.”
As Lou gives me the tour downtown, it’s the names and stories that come to the forefront. His career has been defined as much by the way he works with clients as by how tenacious he is with finding the solutions. The fact that Lou has been enormously successful at cementing collaborative relationships doesn’t surprise Doug Goodwin. One of the first words Doug used to describe Lou is dedication. “There were times when he worked an eighty-hour week; he’d work all day Saturday and all day Sunday,” Doug explained. 
A dedicated engineer to be sure, but there’s more to it than that. Lou seems to have navigated his career by surrounding himself with people he likes and admires. He puts himself with creative people.
“I do about eighty percent residential and twenty percent bio-labs. It relates to the architects who I like working with,” he says.
He also explains that there is more freedom with residential projects. I remember Doug describing Lou’s enormous talent with very complicated timber connections.
We head back to the office, and Lou points to more buildings in downtown Seattle. He loves these buildings. It seems silly to ask, but I’m curious. “Can you choose a favorite building in Seattle?” 
He answers immediately. “Yep. The Chapel at Seattle University.”
He’s referring to the Chapel of St. Ignatius designed for Seattle University in 1997. “Did you work on it?” I ask.
I let that story rest. When I get back to my desk, I look up the chapel: Seven bottles of light in a stone box and A Gathering of Different Lights inspired architect Steven Holl. The Lightbox and A Gathering of Lights—Lou apparently has a fondness for light.
I don’t think I’d be far off to observe that Jim—Lou Billy’s career has been one of a singularly committed man and an enormously talented, award-winning engineer. At first glance, the road may appear curvilinear, but he steadfastly followed a thread: He gave his passion to his work and shared it with those he admired. His career is punctuated with the stories of a city full of light and the relationships that solidly define a career and a life.
Lou will retire on January 25, 2019. Lou and his wife, Jill, will soon celebrate their 25th anniversary.
“What’s your next stop, Lou?” I ask.
“Halcyon Hot Springs.”