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Who IS Dr. Douglas Wright?

by Patricia Paddy

His mother wanted him to be a doctor – but he wanted to build buildings and bridges. So how did he end up being the president of a University, serving as a deputy minister and running the cabinet, and serving on boards for technology-advanced companies and start-up companies that had a vision? And after all that, how did he end up in Geometrica's founding board of directors?

As he related during an interview prior to one of Geometrica's recent board meetings, Dr Douglas T. Wright's life is one of continuous learning and interacting with some very interesting people.

Since he wanted to build buildings and bridges it stands to reason that he would get an engineering degree. He did, in Canada, his home, followed by a master’s degree in engineering from the renowned structural engineering school: the University of Illinois. Wanting to be the best builder of buildings and bridges that he could be, he ended up pursuing and obtaining a PhD from Cambridge University. He candidly shares that he was very disappointed to learn that the PhD didn’t make him more marketable in the workforce. And even though he did do some engineering work, Dr. Wright ended up taking a position at the then fledgling University of Waterloo and becoming the school’s first Dean of Engineering. Today, the first building that was built on the campus bears his name: The Douglas T. Wright Engineering Building.

An ambitious university, Waterloo charged Wright, as dean, to start a “co-op” system of work/study. It was here that Dr. Wright led the merger of academia and business – creating an atmosphere at the university and in the businesses community that supported “mutual admiration.” The two entities would foster creativity and entrepreneurism. This would follow Wright his entire life.

While Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, he investigated the impact of earthquakes on buildings. Canada did not have a sufficient building code for earthquakes. Since some of Wright’s University of Illinois graduate buddies were from Mexico and Mexico has one of the best building codes for earthquakes - Dr. Wright headed south and spent some time at the National University of Mexico, working with the leading mexican researchers in the field, such as Emilio Rosenbleuth. Upon his return he was able to contribute and recommend building codes for earthquakes that would be implemented into Canadian structures.

 

Dome Testing at University of Waterloo
Dome load test, University of Waterloo, 1964

 

Concrete shells and geodesic domes were being designed and built at this time – mainly influenced by Felix Candela in Mexico and Buckminster Fuller, in the US. But for the reticular domes, initially neither engineers nor architects took Fuller very seriously. However, Dr. Wright felt challenged by what Fuller was doing. As he studied the domes he realized that Fuller was more of an artist or sculptor, and didn’t really have the means to properly analyze his structures. Dr. Wright, in a seminal paper published in the Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers, for the first time formalized and made possible the engineering of these complex structures - well before computers. He studied all: successful, failed and experimental domes. With every example, learning more and calibrating his theories with several subsequent papers that are still referred to in the literature. His work led to the review of some of Fuller's designs for some of his anxious clients. The good artist that Bucky was, most of Wright's findings proved the domes were well proportioned. The work in reticular shells also led to early collaboration with Francisco Castano Sr. in the design and building the first reticular hyperbolic paraboloids (hypars) and free form shells, as well as various domes in Mexico and Canada (and later to his involvement in Geometrica with Francisco Castano).

Before leaving the Deanship at the University of Waterloo, Wright found himself in Mexico again. The time was early 1968, a few months before the Olympic games. Dr. Wright consulted for the architectural/engineering team working on the iconic Sports Palace in Mexico City. The architect on the project was Felix Candela – by then perhaps the world's leading evangelist and builder of reinforced concrete shells. Two key engineers on the project were Oscar de Buen and the space-frame contractor, Francisco Castano, Sr. – both brilliant engineers. Yet, when asked about that project, Wright said the most interesting part was the foundation! Since Mexico City is built on a lakebed from a volcanic crater, the biggest concern in building the Sports Palace was creating a foundation that could withstand a differential settling. They were able to devise a domed structure that would survive this settling by combining a grid of main arches with infill of aluminum hypars. Dr. Wright was also instrumental in designing aluminum connectors for geodesic domes that would be an alternative to a solid reinforced concrete structure. These metallic connectors would allow more flexibility in the creative design using domes as well as added strength, and would eventually evolve into the current Geometrica joint.

 

Sports Dome Under construction Olympic Sports Dome in Mexico
Sports Palace under construction Sports Palace for Mexico City Olympics

 

Following his foray into the bleeding edge of structural engineering, he ended up pursuing what are undoubtedly even more difficult challenges: in government. For over a decade, Wright served as deputy minister in Ontario’s government: first in planning the growth of universities across Ontario – developing policies, budgets and strategic plans; and then, running the Cabinet. Dr. Wright is an officer in the Order of Canada (recognizes achievement for outstanding merit or distinguished service through life-long contributions and who have made a major difference in Canada).

After his stint in the Queen’s service, Dr. Wright took on the position of President at the University of Waterloo. During his time as Waterloo's President, he was involved in the design of Toronto’s Skydome stadium, home of the Blue Jays. In the late 90’s Dr. Wright would be awarded Canada’s Entrepreneur of the Year award for fostering and promoting the entrepreneurial spirit throughout Canada.

 

Skydome Under Construction Skydome Toronto Canada
 Skydome under construction  Toronto Skydome

Now retired, Dr. Wright serves and has served on a number of boards for technology based entrepreneurial companies, including RIM, the creator of the blackberry and RDM Corporation developer of electronic check payment processing. When asked about one piece advice he would give to start-ups, he said it was all important – “like a chain, you cannot afford to have any link break.” What’s exciting to him now? Bioengineering, new materials and new energy ideas – to name a few!

Douglas Wright and Francisco Castano

Dr. Wright still has a love for lattice structures. He is an active member of the board for Geometrica, Inc – designer and manufacturer of the largest free span domes in the world. When asked about the strengths of Geometrica, he said that the top two were

  1. Geometrica's outstanding engineering team, lead by Francisco Castano, President of Geometrica and whom Dr. Wright has known since he was a young man. Geometrica is perhaps the only company that truly understands complex dome behavior and how to build these remarkable structures to realize economic advantages.
  2. Geometrica’s willingness and capability to offer the benefits of domes to clients around the world. Realizing that the benefits of these buildings are most needed in developing countries, Geometrica's marketing successfully targets these countries and has resulted in growth and profitability.

With regards to projects Geometrica is currently working on, he believes that the Fachada Museo Soumaya will attract work to Geometrica because of the high profile of the job.  For all at Geometrica, thank you, Dr. Wright, for your tremendous contributions to the field of lattice structures and for your continuing advice and support to the Geometrica team.