Edwin C. Friedrichs
The senior principal for Walter P. Moore, reflects on what led him to engineering and how the infrastructure of the Texas Medical Center has changed over the past several decades.
Q | Tell us about your formative years.
A | I was born in San Antonio and raised in San Antonio and South Texas. In my early years, I spent a lot of time with my family in South Texas. I have great memories of visiting with my cousins on their farms and hunting with them and my family.
During high school, I was interested in science. Back then there was no STEM program to really get you interested in science or engineering, but I always liked taking things apart and putting them back together. We worked on everything that we had at home. We didn’t have people fix things. If something broke we fixed it. One of my grandfathers was a carpenter, and so I learned about building somewhat that way. My father always worked on his own cars, so I learned to repair cars. I guess what really led me into engineering was seeing a presentation by Texas A&M University at a high school career fair. That presentation clearly presented what engineering was all about and I liked what I saw.
As some people might say—although I don’t like the phrase—I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in San Antonio and went to a junior high school where I was right on the diving line. I did not know this, but it was explained to me when I reached high school. I was in a poorer junior high school area by one street, but I was in a more affluent high school by one street. There were some 1,200 students in my class in high school, and very few of us came from my junior high school. We all had to push hard to get into accelerated classes. My parents were very strong supporters of my sister and me. They would say ‘You can do anything you want to.’ Once I was accepted into the more accelerated classes, the teachers were outstanding. The quality of the teachers and the encouragement from them was really great. When I was 14, I started work at a department store after school. I had one of the best bosses you could have. As a new employee, he challenged you, but he trusted you. In other words, he would give you responsibilities, as much as you could take. He never screamed at you, never corrected you. He was always encouraging. I only worked with him for two years before he moved, but he gave me a special education on management and leadership during those years.
One thing that I still remember today is my final meeting with my high school counselor to discuss my plans following graduation. During that meeting, my high school counselor suggested that I not attend college and that I attend a technical school as it would be more appropriate for me. That meeting, along with my parents always encouraging me, inspired me to graduate from a major university.
My father is Austrian/German and my mother is German. Our whole family is very conservative, so it was clear I was going to a conservative school. When I visited the Texas A&M University campus for the first time, it obviously had a military influence. I was not in the CORP, but I lived in a CORP dormitory and actually was a waiter at Duncan Hall, which was their dining facility. I met a lot of good friends there.
Q | Tell me about your job today.
A | I always try to remember I have an internal job and an external job. One internal job is leading and teaching my staff. In personality trait studies, I’ve always been told that if I wasn’t going to be an engineer I was going to be a teacher. It’s something I really enjoy, so I take that on as a very important part of my job. Outside, I work a lot more on planning projects than the execution part. If you don’t plan a project right, it will never end up correct. I try to develop strong relationships with a few very important clients of growing areas such as Downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Uptown and, more recently, Midtown. The first three I probably have worked in since the early 80s.
Q | So if we look around at the largest medical campus in the world, how many of these institutions have you worked with?
A | We’ve worked with all the big hospitals but also with many of the smaller institutions. I have probably worked personally with 25 of the member institutions in the medical center. Our firm has done projects here since 1950. We have probably touched two-thirds to three-quarters of the buildings in the Texas Medical Center.
Q | When you drive through the campus and see the buildings, do you often think back to what it took to actually build or renovate the area?
A | I do, and what I remember sometimes more than anything is the people that made it happen. We did planning and we executed, but there were people who had to make the tough decisions to make it happen. Where do you spend money? What’s the best use of the money for the Texas Medical Center and each of the individual institutions? The people on the boards and the people in charge of the institutions are really inspiring.
I think one of the things that is very clear is the amount the area has changed over the years. You can see that in some of the older aerial photographs you have of these facilities. When I came to Houston in the 70s, it was buildings surrounded by a sea of parking lots. To see it transformed, in turning parking lots into research centers, hospitals and clinics that are helping prevent diseases, is very inspiring to me and all of my employees that work with me on the projects. One thing that has really been great in the last 15-20 years is the focus on creating special places, retreats, for the patients and the visitors. They used come here and park on a surface parking lot, walk along asphalt for 200 yards to a facility for treatment. Or walk out of a hospital for exercise and walk across an asphalt parking lot.
Today there are parks, gardens, and shaded sidewalks. Photos of Texas Medical Center sidewalks are actually used in Scenic Houston’s Streetscape Resource Guide as examples of a walkable area.
Q | So as you look to the future of the medical center, and surrounding area, what are the things we should look forward to?
A | I’ve been here many years and I’ve never seen the kind of collaboration going on between the institutions and I hope for that collaboration increasing. I worked in the 1990s on what was the pre-strategic planning effort. I have two four-inch notebooks with meeting notes from running information-gathering meetings. In many of these meetings, no attendees would say anything. It was a room full of silence if I was not talking. It took 20 questions for me to get an answer.
Q | What do you attribute that mindset to?
A | History. Historically it was just that way here. They were facing other issues also: uncertainty in government regulations and government funding, which are still issues today. There was a huge competition for talent. So there were a lot of things to be afraid of. There hadn’t been a lot of collaboration, so there was no breaking of the ice to see how it could work.
There were probably a few instances where groups worked together. Back then, of course, the teaching schools provided doctors to the hospitals, but there were few researchers from different institutions working together. That’s why is it so exciting to see what’s planned now with the innovation centers. A lot of the leaders are standing up and challenging each other to be more collaborative, and many of them are standing together to support more collaboration.
Q | How do you describe the Texas Medical Center to someone who is not from Texas or has never been here before?
A | I see it as a place for hope for people, and I think that needs to be recognized more. Working here, I see the great buildings and I know what’s inside and how much work it took from the leaders that made it all happen. But if we look from the outside world, of the patients and visitors, I believe they see something different. I’ve had many family members, coworkers and friends come here. I have four being treated at MD Anderson right now. They all see it as hope. To me that’s an image that we need to see as we’re doing our projects.
Q | Is there anything that makes your work in the medical center area different from other areas of
A | In all of those areas, I’ve worked with the same group of people for more than 20 years. There are a lot of similarities, but the Texas Medical Center—in terms of the work we do as engineers and consultants—is much more mission critical. For instance, if a water line breaks and it’s two o’clock in the morning, we have to do what we can to fix it or stop the problems that it’s causing. If there’s a fire in a garage, you have to be prepared because the consequences can be so much greater. Much like in the problems faced during Tropical Storm Allison. The consequences here are greater because there are so many people. The density is so great. The floor area ratio in the medical center main campus is greater than downtown or central uptown. It’s one of the densest areas around for floor area ratio. Therefore, there are a lot of people in a very small space that are impacted by what we do.
Q | What are some of the most exciting projects that you see coming about in the next five years?
A | Hopefully in the very near future, the Innovation Center will take off and continue to gain momentum. It has the potential to really change the speed at which cures are found and delivered to the public. It will change attitudes and increase the hope that I mentioned earlier for finding cures and preventing disease.
A number of institutions also have major initiatives underway. Private developers are coming in with a number of projects specializing in hospitality, residential, retail and other support service developments that are badly needed in this area. Therefore, we have exciting projects of many types underway now and many more planned for the next five years.
Q | What do you love most about your job?
A | Right now, what I love most is teaching and helping other people be successful wherever I can. You asked earlier about formative years, but for me formative years never stop. If you’re going to be a teacher, you have to keep learning. That’s something that excites me in my job… learning something new that supports my goal of teaching. Being part of something as exciting as the Texas Medical Center is great. If you talk to the people who work here, you cannot help but get excited.
I need to bring more of my staff to the medical center to meet a researcher or a doctor who just cured somebody. If you ask them ‘What are you working on?’ they will talk for hours about how excited they are about the possibility of curing a patient or preventing disease. I’m reminded every day of what a great honor it is to just be contributing to this. It’s so rewarding. It makes you want to come in early and work late.
Q | Do you have any closing thoughts?
A | I think one thing that’s really held the Texas Medical Center together are the basic values that exist here. Everything you do here, everything we do in successful companies, has to be guided by your values. We see the Texas Medical Center as a critical part of our community. Walter Moore Sr. always told us ‘Don’t forget your community. If you have a strong community everything is going to be okay.’ He encouraged innovation, which is something that is always inspiring at the Texas Medical Center, through research and trying to find new ways for cures and prevention. He was always big on innovation. I think those core values or thoughts for our firms helped strengthen our relationship with the Texas Medical Center. He used to always say ‘Don’t be afraid to innovate. If you think you’re right and you can do it, don’t be afraid to do it.’ At our company, and I know at the Texas Medical Center, innovation is not optional.
The Texas Medical Center thrives on having some of the greatest talent in the world. It’s not much different for our business. When we look to hire somebody, we look for someone who has passion, someone that has expertise in their desire to get better within their area, and somebody that can perform and actually make something happen.