Category
Practitioner
Born
1928
Died
2022
Career Began
1954
Retired
1998
Media
Raj Desai
Raj Desai
Source: Helen Desai
Desai at Birkenstock Building
Raj Desai at the McGraw Hill Distribution Center
Source: Helen Desai
Birkenstock building - arial view
McGraw Hill Distribution Center
Source: Jeff Boyd via Flickr CC 2.0
Desai Foundation
Desai Donation to Fund Engineering Research
Source: SEAONC News, March 2015
Contributions to Structural Engineering History in Northern California

Rajnikant Thakorbhai “Raj” Desai’s career as a practicing structural engineer in the United States spanned 40 years. Desai was responsible for more than 100 projects located in San Francisco, the larger San Francisco Bay Area, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. His structural engineering practice included the design and construction of many buildings with a broad range of uses and building types – office buildings, residential, warehouses, hospitals, hotels, commercial, religious, civic center, banking, parking garages, single family residences, low-cost housing, and airport facilities.

Education:

Born in Bombay, India on October 22, 1928, Desai possessed an early interest in math and was encouraged by family members to pursue engineering. His choice of structural design was confirmed upon witnessing earthquake damage to the city of Mumbai. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Structural Engineering degree at the College of Engineering in Pune, India in 1949. Desai immigrated to the U.S. in December of 1950 and earned his M.S. in Structural Engineering degree at UC Berkeley in 1953.

Professional Engineering Career:

In 1958, Desai went into practice with his first job as a structural engineer in the firm of John Savage Bolles Associates in San Francisco where he gained valuable experience working on projects with architect John Bolles. He eventually rose to engineering partner in the firm, leading their structural engineering practice. During this time, Raj Desai gained a strong sense of his professional interests and personality strengths. He developed his skills as an exceptionally thoughtful, creative, and innovative structural engineer.

In 1969, Desai opened the San Francisco office of Richard R. Bradshaw Consulting Engineers of California, with structural engineering partner, Richard Bradshaw.

In 1974, Desai started his own engineering practice, Raj Desai Associates in San Francisco where the practice grew under Associates Wye Ming Choo, Lawrence Chan, and Tom Hui. In 1991, he merged Raj Desai Associates with OLMM Consulting Engineers and served as principal. In 1998, he retired from active practice.

Raj Desai worked with notable architects, corporate, and institutional clients. Architects included John Savage Bolles, Robert Herman, Alan Walters, Jorge de Quesada, Robinson, Mills & Williams (RMW), Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK), and Robert Marquis.

Early in his career, he worked on a number projects located in San Jose, working with Architect John Bolles for IBM. These included San Jose office, research, and manufacturing facilities – Buildings #2 (1969), #28 (1970), the Pavilion, Asset Protection Building and the Building #50 complex (1980s). Other important San Jose project work included the San Jose Airport Center (1970-71), the 15-story San Jose Plaza office building (1971), the Gateway OPI complex (1980), and the Gateway OPII complex and Atrium Center (1985).

In the 1970s and 1980s, major projects included office buildings, warehouses, hospital/medical buildings, parking garages, and hotel and restaurant/commercial buildings in the SF Bay Area, including in the cities of San Mateo, San Bruno, Foster City, Newark, South San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Redwood City, Sunnyvale, and Daly City. Out-of-State projects included office and banking buildings in Reno, Nevada; Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; and in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The majority of his projects were located in San Francisco where the Raj Desai Associates office was located. Highlights included the slender 18-story Ecker Square (122,400sf) office building (1982) near Market and Mission Streets. Raj recalls that “this was my first big job in San Francisco.”  At Howard and Main Streets, the 13-story (230,000sf) office building (1978), he recalls “was the first ductile concrete moment frame building in the City of San Francisco” following the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake using latest UBC 1976 and SEAOC Blue Book provisions. Other projects included Ghirardelli Square, medical/office, community centers, residences, and low-cost housing.

In 1994, OLMM, led by principals Denis Oh and Raj Desai, joined in association with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill structural engineers and Navin Amin in the design of the new main San Francisco International Airport Terminal (SFIA) “shoulder” connector buildings to Boarding Gates B and G, completed in 2001. This structural engineering association also included Michael O’Sullivan of Faye Bernstein Associates in the design of the new International Terminal approach roadways and connections. For the SFIA expansion, OLMM also participated in additional program elements besides the main terminal. These projects included the AirTrain Stations, Central Terminal/Control Tower evaluations, and Boarding Area “G” gate expansion.

One of Raj’s favorite projects was the early 1960s, McGraw Hill distribution center in Novato, CA (now a Birkenstock warehouse) – with its signature hyperbolic paraboloid long-span roof structure consisting of modular folded geometry of thin-shelled reinforced concrete. This engineering design by Raj Desai, while working with Architect John Bolles, was likely influenced by Professor Alex Scordelis’s thin shell structures coarse while Raj was a UC Berkeley masters student.

Desai Donation to Fund Engineering Research:

In 2015, longtime SEAONC and SEAOC member Raj Desai and wife Helen Crane Desai made an extraordinary gift of $100,000 to the SEAOC Foundation to fund future research in structural engineering. Upon receiving the donation, SEAOC Foundation Chair Dick Dreyer remarked, “We are excited about the future possibilities of using these funds to sponsor research projects in the field of structural engineering analysis and design that will yield new and valuable information for our practice as a whole.” Raj and Helen wished the gift to grow and whereby encouraging others to donate to the Foundation’s research fund, to further advance the field of structural engineering where Raj Desai successfully practiced for decades.

Helen Crane Desai:

Helen Crane Desai, who also earned her graduate degree at UC Berkeley, taught art history at the College of San Mateo, San Francisco State University, and UC Extension.  She has served as a docent at the SF Asian Art Museum for 40 years; in retirement Raj too served as a docent there as well as at the city’s two other Fine Arts museums. Together they were active board members of the California Institute of integral Studies, and both are devoted leaders and members of a wide range of Indian-American and Asian-American arts and cultural organizations, as well as with several environmental and civil liberties organizations.

While a masters student at UC Berkeley in 1952, Raj Desai met Helen Crane at the International House, a boarding house for International and American students. Following his graduation in 1953, they were married in 1954 with a marriage that continued for 68 years until his death in San Francisco on November 11, 2022.

During an interview with his wife Helen, at the age of 94, at their San Francisco home in August of 2023, Helen described how she first met Raj at the UC Berkeley “I House” in the Fall of 1951. Helen was an undergrad. They had met. Helen had been seen with a tennis racket, and Raj asked Helen, “Would you like to play tennis?”  She said, “yes, I would.” When he showed up to play, she learned that he had never played before. This was his first time playing.

Helen and Raj have three children and seven grandchildren, who share a multi-generation tradition of attending the University of California.

Other Professional Activities:

  • Founding president of the Association of Asian Indian Engineers of America
  • Co-founded with Helen Crane (spouse) Richmond Environment Action (REA), and Society for the Art and Cultural Heritage of India (SACHI)

Following Retirement in 1998:

  • Docent at the SF Asian Art Museum and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
  • Earth Island Institute, Berkeley, CA (David Brower) volunteer work with wife, Helen.

 

Other References:

  • Memorial service, Rajnikant Thakorbhai Desai, The First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, February 11, 2023
  • SEAOC News: “Desai Donation to Fund Engineering Research”, March 17, 2015
Awards & Accomplishments
  • SEAONC Excellence in Structural Engineering Award for the San Francisco International Airport Terminal (2001)
  • AISC Engineering Award of Excellence for the San Francisco International Airport Terminal (2001)
Related Engineer(s)
Related Organization(s)
Related Structure(s)