Ron Klemencic  

No one disagrees that construction lags in innovation and that everything from restrictive building codes to exaggerated perceptions of risk hold us back. Now two decades old, the Charles Pankow Foundation (CPF) seeks to break construction out of its self-limiting shell and spur development of non-proprietary technology to improve building design and construction.

A novel new structural steel system called SpeedCore is an example of the results CPF’s efforts produce. Partnering with Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA) and the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC), CPF led a broad consortium of co-funders, expert advisors, in-kind contributors and industry champions over an 18-year period to develop this new, non-proprietary structural system. CPF’s belief is that innovation available to all will accelerate adoption and increase the velocity of advancement in design and construction.    

But recently, one of the powerhouse engineering practices, WSP, obtained a patent for a specific method by which SpeedCore panels are interconnected in the field. While obtaining the patent was legal, this action flies in the face of the efforts of countless colleagues and the entire steel industry. The fact that a patent was obtained says a lot about the contested soul of engineering and how the desire for short-term profit often undermines progress.

SpeedCore has been successfully implemented on two buildings: the 58-story Rainier Square mixed-use tower in Seattle and a 19-story office building in San Jose. Both projects benefitted from speedier construction. SpeedCore saved Rainer Square 10 months while the San Jose project netted a three-month saving. Astounding accomplishments, thanks to the efforts of many. Properly so, Rainier Square won an American Society of Civil Engineers Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award in 2022 recognizing its use of SpeedCore, and was even recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning. Not many building structural systems get that kind of public acknowledgment.

The WSP patent (U.S. Patent 11,352,786 B2) lists a very accomplished structural engineer employed by the company as the inventor of the connection method. In my opinion, the patent does not include any new product or device. Instead, it describes an arrangement of common materials (steel plate, headed studs, reinforcing steel and concrete) to form a connection between adjacent panels. Fundamental engineering mechanics, commonly used Building Code provisions and simple calculations are cited to support the modifications.

There is no evidence that the new system, which was described as a  “Modular Composite Core Wall System – A Modified SpeedCore System,” in the August 2023 issue of Structure Magazine, has been tested to support its performance.

Most troubling is how a patent takes advantage of the non-proprietary, open-source research by CPF, MKA and AISC. Millions of dollars have been invested, and thousands of hours of testing performed, to confirm the performance of the SpeedCore system.  

The Pankow Foundation is immensely disappointed and frustrated by these actions. What is at stake, and this is no exaggeration, is the future of construction and the heart of the engineering profession. Engineering is more than a business; it is a profession that has a bond with society that is partly fulfilled by the public spirit of innovation.

"What's tragic about the patented SpeedCore connection method is that it inevitably restricts and discourages use of the underlying technology."

—Ron Klemencic

Instead of restricting and hindering the use of SpeedCore through a patent, the patent-holders could have shared their ideas and engaged the broader community to improve SpeedCore.

CPF’s vision is “To provide the AEC industry with a better way to design and build.” It will be a very unsettling future for the profession if structural engineers must conduct a patent search every time an engineer details a connection.

What’s tragic about the patented SpeedCore connection method is that it inevitably restricts and discourages use of the underlying technology. Construction history has proven many times that making a system or methodology proprietary hinders widespread adoption. Method patents are restrictive, discouraging use of the underlying technology.  

Consider what the Charles Pankow Foundation does as analogous to the way in which we think about open-source software, where the community benefit takes precedence. CPF has supported the development of Guidelines for Performance-Based Seismic Design, the acceptance and inclusion of high-strength reinforcing steel in building codes, Guidelines for Performance-Based Wind Design and the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3). It has taken funding by CPF and contributions of countless professionals, researchers, suppliers, fabricators and contractors working together to advance the building industry on a non-proprietary basis.

WSP is a well-regarded international company. CPF is delighted that anyone would want to contribute to improving SpeedCore, but the patent is bad for the engineering profession—and bad for the advancement of construction. Maybe WSP could have worked together with CPF and tested the connection method together for the benefit of all. What happened instead is a great disappointment.

Ron Klemencic is director of the Charles Pankow Foundation and CEO of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, a Seattle-based structural engineer. He can be reached at rklemencic@mka.com.