Forget the stereotypes: engineering the Shard was six years of exhilarating fun

Guest blog

WSP structural engineer and “leading lady” Roma Agrawal explains why you’ll need passion if you want an engineering job you’ll love.

People often ask me why I became an engineer or why should they become one. My short answer is because it’s fun.

There are a number of unhelpful stereotypes surrounding what engineers do: it’s boring and geeky; they fix boilers or get muddy on site. The reality is that we solve problems in a creative way and help people. I have always enjoyed maths and physics, but engineering has given me the rewarding opportunity to use these technical subjects to create buildings in which people can live and work.

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Engineers aren’t boring or geeky, but sometimes they do wear hard hats.

I am a structural engineer and it’s my job to make sure that our buildings and bridges stand up. I work in a professional and exciting environment with architects, engineers, contractors and clients from different backgrounds, coming together to produce an excellent product. As part of the team at WSP that designed The Shard at London Bridge, I worked on the foundations and Spire at the very top of the tower. Every day of the fantastic six years I spent on this project brought new design challenges – it was never boring.

In creating the basement of the Shard, we used a method called top-down construction to produce the core or spine of the building in a way that had never been done before. Instead of excavating and building the foundations first, we started at the ground floor and constructed upwards and downwards at the same time, making the process much quicker and more efficient.

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Roma’s work on the Shard involved creating innovative building techniques that sped up construction.

When we built the top of the tower, “The Spire”, we had to make sure that it both looked fantastic and could be built safely high up in the middle of central London. We divided the entire structure into modules that could be easily made in a factory, transported to London and then lifted by crane to the top of the building, hugely cutting down the time it took to build it.

Being involved in design and methods of construction that had no precedent was exhilarating. I learnt so much about trying out different ideas and critiquing them in order to arrive at the best solution. My favourite part of engineering is when my projects are being built on site: I visit (in my boots, which do sometimes get muddy) to make sure that the building is being laid down to our design, watching in awe as my small two-dimensional drawings turn into real objects that I can touch and that people can use.

Creative? Rewarding? Exciting? And fun? Absolutely!

If you decide like me that you want to create things for people and become a professional engineer, how can you do that?

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Forget the stereotypes: Roma (second from left) featured in the recent Marks & Spencer “Leading Ladies” ad campaign.

The most important thing is that you’re passionate about engineering and that you’re not put off by unhelpful stereotypes. I myself was unsure what career I wanted when I was applying for university so I chose to study physics at undergraduate level. Once I had done some work experience with engineers, the lightbulb was lit and I decided to study a master’s in structural engineering.

When I was applying for graduate positions I highlighted my passion for engineering, my work experience and the unique set of skills I personally would bring to each company. I chose WSP because I wanted to work in an exciting company that would support my career aspirations. Now I get to to travel, work with smart, motivated people and change the world, one design at a time.

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Roma Agrawal is an associate structural engineer at WSP in London. Alongside her work promoting the importance of engineering and engineering careers, she recently appeared in Marks & Spencer’s “Leading Ladies” ad campaign celebrating successful British women.

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