Art W. McKinney

Architectural Engineering
Class of 1965, BS

The last time Elvis Presley left a concert building, he walked through exit doors put there by Art McKinney.

McKinney – Virginia Tech Class of 1965, former employee of J. Robert Carlton and Associates in Richmond, and now owner of full-service design and construction firm McKinney & Company – once quipped about his career, “We did do some gee-whiz engineering and have built some really cool stuff.”

And how. If it were not for Mr. McKinney, Presley’s final concert could have played out differently. The famous performance was held at Market Square Arena – a project overseen by a young McKinney – in Indianapolis. The date was June 26, 1977, and 18,000 fans watched the King of Rock and Roll blow through a 20-song set. Three months later, Presley was dead. Other Market Square claims to fame: The Pacers played there for roughly 25 years. The Ice whacked pucks there for years, in part due to a pitch by Mr. McKinney, who talked up the facility's capabilities. Rock band Motley Crue filmed a music video there in the 1980s.

Market Square remains a cornerstone project for Mr. McKinney: 21,000 seats with a 364-foot-diameter dome designed and built in the early 1970s. Problems were many: politicians fought over the location, and the selected site was a tight fit. In the end, the project covered two city blocks with the event floor spanning Market Street. “We brought it in on time, and on budget using fast track, phased construction,” Mr. McKinney says.

Then in 2001, “They blew it up.” They being Indianapolis. Only a marker highlighting Presley’s final stage appearance remains. Classmates and friends from Virginia Tech sometimes drag out the implosion video as a joke of sorts. “You know you are getting old when one of your premiere projects got blown up,” Mr. McKinney says.

He started his own company 30 years ago. A project of his company’s is regularly showcased on television: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Vehicle Research Center. (You’ve seen it in a thousand vehicle safety commercials.) The facility’s unique requirements for full-scale vehicle crash testing provided an opportunity to start from the basic physics of fully inelastic impacts and move to a practical engineering solution. The test bed realized has significantly contributed to vehicle safety, said Mr. McKinney.

Then, roughly 15 years ago, Mr. McKinney pushed his business out of big box manufacturing, warehouses and distribution centers and such, into complex critical facilities, clean room manufacturing, data centers and the life sciences. The new path started when Mr. McKinney’s company began designing and building clean room facilities for Technicolor, a company best known as a Hollywood film developer. “Clean” leads to “containment,” the businessman says.

Now working internationally, Mr. McKinney’s work involves stringent containment standards for biologic and chemical risks. These facilities have various biosafety levels, from Level 1 (might make you sick) to 3 (tuberculosis) to 4 (breakout the plastic suits from “E.T.”). Mr. McKinney currently is commissioning his first level 4 facility. There are only five or so in the entire country. Requirements are strict and unique – the ability to flood the room with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, for example. One of the company’s more recent BSL-3 projects is the $63 million Division of Forensic Science, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, in Prince William County, Virginia, completed in 2009.

With an office in Panama since 2001, Mr. McKinney has completed a series of projects combining manufacturing with the life sciences. The work involves programs to control insects such as med flies, and to eradicate parasites such as screw worms. Sterile Insect Technique, the mass rearing, sterilization, and release of such insects saves the citrus and cattle industries billions of dollars,” Mr. McKinney says.

Taking on such needed and tough-to-realize projects is a specialized service, but challenges don’t bother Mr. McKinney. “Don’t let artificial boundaries set by yourself or other people limit what you can do,” he says, recalling part of a commencement speech he gave Virginia Tech engineering students in 2009. “You should be defined by your character. There is no box.”

Mr. McKinney was born in Florida during World War II. Before young Art was a full month old, his father – a pilot and instructor for the U.S. Air Force – moved the family to South Carolina and then Georgia. He saw many moves before finishing high school in Virginia.

When he arrived at Virginia Tech in 1961, he was set on being an architect. Soon, though, structural engineering drew his interest. “It worked out well,” Mr. McKinney says.

Four years in the Corps helped improve his attention span, Mr. McKinney says. An interesting note, several years ago Don Garst, one of his structural professors commented, “For two years, Art was the Honor System,” an off-hand, but quite appreciated remark, Mr. McKinney says.

He is now a Fellow of the American Council of Engineering Companies, serves on four technical committees, and as an instructor for the American Concrete Institute. He is a member of the American Cancer Institute Board, South Atlantic Division. He is an avid supporter of Virginia Tech. He is a distinguished instructor at the university’s Division of Continuing Education and Public Service Program. He served six years on the Civil and Environmental Engineering Alumni’s Board, and was inducted into Chi Epsilon in 2009. He now serves on the college’s Committee of 100 and is a past member and chair of the college’s Advisory Board. He was named the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus of 2009.

He also regularly keeps in touch and attends reunions with his classmates – lifelong friends he made in the Corps of Cadets. “When you got to Virginia Tech, you set down some very serious roots. If you didn’t, you missed an important fork in the road,” he says.

His class had its 45th year reunion in October 2010. “Of the 43 people starting in 1961, E Company, 19 of us graduated, we lost one in Vietnam, and we have lost two to health problems. Thirteen of us were at that reunion.” Plans are underway for the 50th anniversary. “The plan is to be there, more importantly to still be here,” jokes Mr. McKinney.

Mr. McKinney’s Hokie love spilled over to his children. Daughter Christine graduated in 1988 with a degree in geophysics. Son Art graduated in 1990 with a degree in history. The lineage may not stop there. His nine-year-old granddaughter loves visiting campus during football season. “She is already Blacksburg bound,” Mr. McKinney predicts.

Class of: 1965
Year Inducted into Academy: 2011

Art W. McKinney