Dubai: She built the foundations and the iconic spire for The Shard, the tallest structure in Western Europe. One of London’s biggest tourist draws, The Shard’s stunning look and its spell-binding engineering is the stuff of architectural legend and Roma Agrawal exults in her contribution to it. “I worked in a brilliant team of structural engineers and we challenged the way things were done traditionally,” says the engineer and author.
She explains the process: “We used a technique called ‘top down construction’ to build the basement which sped up the programme. We also tested the Spire by building parts of it at the steel factory before it was constructed on site to make it as safe as possible. It was such an honour to work on the project so early in my career.”
Which, as it turns out, is another distinguishing feature of her career — as one of the youngest engineers to make her mark in this field. Actually, that needs to read as, one of the youngest female structural engineers to make her mark. Does the categorisation irk her?
“In the UK, around 12 per cent of engineers are women, and girls take up maths and physics at school at lower rates than boys,” says Agrawal, a diversity campaigner. “If the emphasis on my gender inspires young girls to consider a career in engineering, that’s fantastic.
“If something is seen as a traditionally male profession, then girls and women need to be ‘brave’ or challenge these stereotypes. Then, they need to be accepted by the profession, their careers nurtured. The more women that break through, the more diverse the workforce is.”
The gift of engineering
Her view on the bright side of things is reflected in her book, Built, The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures (2018), which was warmly received by critics and readers for its wealth of anecdotes, compact history of engineering through civilisations and a generous sprinkling of trivia such as the addition of sticky rice to the mortar of China’s Great Wall to fortify it.
“I believe the history of engineering is important and fascinating,” says Agrawal, who is currently with AECOM, a global infrastructure firm, in London. “I wanted to ignite people’s interest in the structures that keep them safe every day and tell the stories of the amazing humans that created our human-made world.” She finds it interesting that “the thing we see most when visiting historical sites is the remains of structures.”
Her interest in this field owes itself to her growing up years in Mumbai, India, which imprinted upon her mind the benefits of engineering for society. “I remember having power cuts and restricted use of water sometimes, as well as fighting through traffic on the roads,” she says. “When new reservoirs were built, or new bridges and roads were constructed, it made an immediate impact on the everyday lives of people.” Engineering, it struck her, is all about people. “And that’s what drives me,” she says.
Communication and engineering
Completing her A-levels in London, Agrawal went on to do Physics at University of Oxford followed by a masters in structural engineering at Imperial College London. She has been living in London now for the past 20 years and “been working as a structural engineer for 14 years.”
One of the biggest realisations has been the importance of communication in engineering. “That’s not something I expected,” says Agrawal. “We need to be able to explain complex technical principles to our clients, architects, other engineers and the general public in relatable terms. The best all-round engineers are those that can do this successfully.”
Creativity in engineering she believes is also important. “[It’s] a huge part of structural engineering. In that sense, I believe art is very important, and for engineers to have drawing skills and use their creativity to solve the technical problems we face.”
She also believes that high-rises are an advantage in keeping urban spaces from breaking boundaries. “I feel that cities shouldn’t spread out too much and impinge on the countryside; it’s better for cities to be concentrated with excellent infrastructure. Paris is a good example of a city that is fairly dense with apartment blocks.”
Agrawal, who was appointed Member of the British Empire in 2018, loves travelling and reading. “Now, I’m enjoying spending time with my baby.”
Five structures in the world that take her breath away:
- Pantheon in Rome which was built by the ancient Empire using their special concrete.
- Basilica Cistern in Istanbul. It is a beautiful example of Roman bricks.
- Brooklyn Bridge. It has a fascinating story about a woman that ran its construction process for 11 years in the 1800s.
- Bandra-Worli sealink in Mumbai. “I watched it being built from my grandmother’s window.”
- Burj Khalifa, because it’s the tallest tower in the world.