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Book review: ‘Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures’ by Roma Agrawal

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A treatise on structural engineering is also a personal account of a career in building design.

Roma Agrawal has a knack for taking complex concepts, stripping them down and reducing them to their most basic form. As a structural engineer, she’s played key design roles on the Shard, a “fancy footbridge” in Newcastle and a curving canopy at Crystal Palace station in London. Her job, she says, is to make sure these edifices remain standing by deploying her hard-won understanding of what props them up in the first place.

Put like that, it does sound easy, but what she’s really doing in her important new book, ‘Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures’ (Bloomsbury, £20, ISBN 9781408870365), is guiding us through the myriad secrets of structural engineering – cables that allow a bridge to span a river or steel skeletons that hold up glass towers – as seen through her eyes.

‘Built’ is remarkable in that it is both a treatise on structural engineering and a personal account of a career in building design that is still in its early phases. A high achiever, the 35-year-old physicist-turned-engineer is passionate about diversity in the workplace as well as the public understanding of engineering. She’s also a decent writer, an attribute that propels the reader along as she references her own career highlights, historical exempla and scientific knowledge. It’s the sort of book that used to be classified as ‘popular science’ that now sadly seems to have lost its publishing appeal.

What makes ‘Built’ so enjoyable is the way Agrawal applies her enquiring mind – the passage about her assembling cranes as a kid to create buildings for her Barbie dolls is fascinating – to an engineering world that she finds simultaneously invisible while being no less than fundamental to modern society. As the pages unfold, she takes us on a voyage of discovery in which we encounter vivid tales of the pioneers behind architectural wonders such as the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

Agrawal’s text is richly informed with academic, historical and anecdotal asides as well as her own line drawings to illustrate her technical points. We are also constantly reminded of her good-natured bemusement as a woman working “much to my frustration” as a minority in her profession that is seen as a “man’s world” to the point where she was once asked if she wanted her photograph taken while wearing her “costume” (for which, read hard hat and hi-vis jacket). As with so many of her observations, this would be funny until you realise it’s deadly serious, and you begin to see why she tours the country giving talks in schools about gender in the workplace.

But in essence her book is predominantly about buildings and the engineering that stops them falling down. As Agrawal says early on: “Our ever-changing, engineered universe is a narrative full of stories that, if you have the ears to listen, and the eyes to see, is fascinating to experience.” This fascination is communicated with flair and passion in a highly engaging debut book that will appeal to the engineer and the inquisitive layperson alike.

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