Roma Agrawal helps to turn the blueprints for new buildings into reality. She tells Etan Smallman how the housing in our cities could soon evolve and why high-rise scan still be the answer despite the Grenfell Tower disaster
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We have heard of the “starchitects”. Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid and Renzo Piano – they are the glittering names behind the glass-and-steel trophy buildings increasingly adorning or littering (depending on your viewpoint) our cities’ skylines. But what about the engineers – the scientists whose brain power keeps these ever-growing structures from collapsing on top of us? The structural engineer Roma Agrawal speaks about her field with enthusiasm, but when I ask her just who are the household names in her industry, she seems stumped.
“Erm, it’s difficult to say,” she concedes, listing Brunel and Stephenson before admitting she can’t think of anyone who has not been dead for 150 years. What is less difficult to say is that if a superstar engineer is going to emerge in the next decade, I am probably looking at her. Agrawal has just launched her first book, Built, the latest salvo in her crusade to get us to see the world “through different eyes, the eyes of an engineer”.
If Agrawal is anything to go by, that involves standing atop the Shard and shunning the view in favour of craning your neck to marvel at the steel joists above. Agrawal, who advises readers never to challenge a structural engineer to a game of Jenga if they want to have a hope of winning, can regularly be found “stroking concrete in public”. She is married to a banker, whom she had initially described to her friends as “Flirtman”, before he successfully wooed her with a volley of emails sharing his “Bridge of the Day”.
At 23, Agrawal was working on the Shard, the tallest building in western Europe. Still only 34, the one-time judge of Channel 4’s Lego Masters has been garlanded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Structural Engineers for her public promotion of her profession, and featured in M&S’s “Leading Ladies” ads alongside Emma Thompson, Annie Lennox and Doreen Lawrence.
Born in India, Agrawal grew up in Mumbai and upstate New York before moving to London by herself at 15. The daughter of an electrical engineer and computer programmer says she never allowed gender to colour her ambitions. When not messing around with her beloved Lego, she was playing with Barbies – using her cranes to construct a suitable home for them.
It was only beginning her physics degree at Oxford, observing a sea of male faces in the lecture theatre, “when I suddenly thought, wow, there’s a huge gender imbalance”.
At the start of her career Agrawal not only had to overcome a phobia of heights, but she also had to handle visiting construction site cabins “with pictures of naked women on the walls”. “I basically have to then go in as a young woman and have a serious conversation about science. It’s just awkward for everyone!” she says, as we chat in a café near her home in north-west London.
That kind of laddishness has given way to “more subtle sexism”, she explains. “When people assume that I’m junior or I’m there to take notes. I’ve been mistaken for a secretary many times, even though I have the word director in my job title. So sometimes it feels like, no matter what I do, people will always first see me as a woman, and then see me as an engineer.”
Agrawal says she is convinced that she is paid equally to her male peers because she takes no chances. She “benchmarks” her salary against others across the industry by consulting with recruiters. “When the annual review comes, if I want to increase my pay, I now ask. I didn’t initially, but I’ve learnt over time that you need to ask.”
Built transmits Agrawal’s fervour for her craft through the human stories behind the architecture, with her handdrawn illustrations helping to make chewy scientific concepts digestible.
The book has an entire chapter titled “Fire”, and talks in depth about the lessons engineers have learnt across history from various disasters. And yet it does not mention Grenfell Tower, an omission described by one reviewer as “weird, bordering on negligent”. Agrawal insists it was merely “a timing thing” as she finished her manuscript more than a year ago.
But with publication eight months after the fire, and its author sidestepping my questions on the subject, I get the sense that it may have been more because this is such politically fraught territory, upon which a diplomatic Agrawal does not wish to tread. I ask to what extent she thinks the disaster was a failure of engineering. “I’m not really comfortable commenting on that because it’s just not clear at this point in time,” she says.
Agrawal is similarly tightlipped when I ask if she ever hears any negative reactions to the Shard – surely the most Marmite building in Britain, and to many a symbol not just of soaring elegance but gaping inequality, too. Just three days before we meet, the building’s owners, the Qatari royal family, seek a High Court injunction against an anarchist planning weekly protests outside the landmark, whose 10 luxury apartments still lie empty five years after opening.
“To be honest, my engineering work finished basically in 2012, so for me, kind of, my work there is done,” she says. I tell Agrawal that until last year, I lived down the road from where we are sitting now. On the roof of my flatshare, I could see the Shard to the east, with the burnt-out wreck of Grenfell to the west.
If there is a more stark visual illustration of the different experiences of the built environment in our capital city, I have not seen it. Could Britain’s poor, I wonder, ever view living in a tower as something to which they could aspire, rather than something they are forced to endure? “I think we’ve kind of culturally tainted high-rise with badly built buildings in the 1960s and 1970s,” Agrawal laments, positing that taller architecture is actually one way of combating the environmental problems of “urban sprawl”, which sees commuters getting stuck in traffic trying to traverse constantly expanding metropolises. With intelligent architecture and engineering, she maintains, “we can create good housing for any level of income, in high-rise”.
What’s more, engineering breakthroughs could even ameliorate the housing crisis. Agrawal speaks passionately about “vibration isolation techniques” being used on new buildings next to rail lines. “If a train’s thumping past your building, we put these rubber pads at the base of the structure which absorb the vibrations. It means we can start to unlock land which previously wouldn’t have felt like a very nice place to live.”
Agrawal’s “favourite character” in her book is Emily Warren Roebling, the daughter-in-law of the chief engineer of Brooklyn Bridge, who was killed during construction, before his son took over and was left disabled by an on-site mishap. “We’re talking about the mid to late 1800s. So that’s not the time when women were even awarded degrees, and she stepped in and ran the project for 11 years.”
More than 130 years on, Agrawal is leading the charge against lingering misconceptions about women’s ambitions. She says: “One of the stereotypes perhaps is that women, if they’re really good at science, are more likely to become doctors – because they want to help people. But then I say: well, think about civil engineers who create clean water. In cities like London 150 years ago, tens of thousands of people were dying of cholera. Today, no one does.”
“That’s because of a civil engineer, not a doctor,” she adds, proudly. “So we should see engineering as a caring profession as well!”
- ‘Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures’ by Roma Agrawal (£20, Bloomsbury) is out now
Agrawal’s biggest challenges
Northumbria University footbridge, Newcastle
“This was my first project after leaving university. The standout technical challenge on the bridge was the cables, because you never want them to be slack, otherwise they won’t carry the load properly. So I had to do lots of different types of analysis for different phases of the build to make sure that the cables stayed taut at each. I modelled where people might congregate in different configurations, also testing what would happen as the temperature changed with the seasons.”
The Shard, central London
“The basement was the complex part for me. We used this technique called top-down construction, which had never been used before for a building of this size. To save time, we worked downwards and upwards at the same time. We were basically building parts of what you see above ground while building foundations. It also involved one of the biggest concrete pours in the country – about 700 trucks over three days. That’s actually quite tricky because concrete gives off a lot of heat. Then there were the logistical challenges: how do we get all these trucks of concrete quickly into central London?”
A Georgian townhouse in Mayfair, central London
“My work on the refurbishment of a Georgian house in Mayfair felt a bit like a forensic engineering challenge. It was built in the 1700s and then it had interventions in the early 1900s, the 1960s and the 1980s – and we were trying to bring it back to what it originally would have been. I had to look at this building, which had been there in various forms for hundreds of years, and go: where are the loads coming down? Can we knock a hole through here? Can we take this bit of roof out? That building had historic protections as well, so we had to be very, very delicate.”
Crystal Palace station redevelopment, south London
“We put in new lift shafts and a new curving canopy roof above the tracks. For me, the most challenging thing was all the infrastructure that comes with rail – you’ve got the tracks, the ballast, and incredible amounts of information – and power-related cables running all over the place. So when you’re trying to refurbish a station, you have to weave your way between all the existing structures, cables and ducts – before you start thinking about putting up new ones.”