BOOK REVIEW: How engineers make dreams a reality

The wonders of engineering are revealed in a new book by an inspirational engineer who worked on The Shard. Andy Walker read the book in a day and was suitably impressed.

Emily Warren Roebling was the first female field engineer and saw out the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Once in a while you read a book that makes you think differently about the world around you. BUILT: - The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, is quite simply a book about engineering and one woman’s passion for construction that I could not put down. So much so that I read it in a single day.

Its author, structural engineer Roma Agrawal, has written a book that is as readable as it is fascinating. Even for someone who regularly writes about infrastructure, engineering and construction, this book made me look anew at the world and the built environment that underpins it. 

BUILT is Agrawal’s first ever book (hard to believe given its lively and accessible style) and she transports the reader on an exciting and always interesting tour of how engineering works and the forces at play that underpin - and in some cases undermine - structures and buildings. A natural communicator, Agrawal won the Consultant of the Future and Diamond Award for Engineering Excellence in ACE’s Engineering Excellence Awards in 2015 and after reading this book I think the judges’ decision was a prescient one.

In BUILT, Agrawal (pictured above) charts her inspirations and what drove her to pursuing a career in engineering as well as telling us the stories behind some of the world’s landmark buildings. Agrawal’s infectious enthusiasm for engineering shines through every page of this book, as does her respect for the natural environment and the many geniuses throughout the years that have shaped a world we now take for granted. 

The book’s fly sheet asks the reader to imagine a world where everything created by engineers had disappeared. What would you see? The answer of course is almost nothing - no cars, no houses, no phones, bridges or roads, no tunnels either, or skyscrapers. Agrawal looks at how construction has evolved from the days of the mud hut to mega structures made of steel that touch the sky. She also describes in some detail the way that sewerage systems have evolved and her account of the trade in human excrement in early 17th century Japan is especially fascinating!

Through detailed archive images, photographs and her own hand-drawn illustrations, Agrawal brings engineering to life. She rightly highlights the role that women have played in engineering down the years and devotes a whole chapter to her engineering idol, Emily Warren Roebling, without whose skills and expertise, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York would never have been completed. Agrawal is a staunch advocate of diversity and inclusion in engineering and speaks widely on the issue with some passion.

Her accounts of how some of the world’s iconic buildings and structures came into being are inspiring and her descriptions of the far-sighted visionary geniuses who down the years have made the seemingly impossible possible are equally jaw-dropping. Agrawal clearly knows her subject inside out and wants the reader to feel her enthusiasm for engineering too. 

Reading the book was a real eye opener and it made me think anew about more ‘technical’ subjects like physics and maths that as a writer I thought I’d left at the secondary school gates. Agrawal makes engineering accessible and exciting, highlighting how the engineer makes the most extravagant of dreams a reality. This book deserves the widest possible audience, especially amongst the young. 

On a practical level, Agrawal also informs us why you should never ever take on an engineer at Jenga, which is something I will also remember after reading this fantastically interesting and inspiring book. I can’t recommend BUILT too highly.

BUILT - The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures by Roma Agrawal is published by Bloomsbury and retails at £20 but can be purchased for £12.99 from Amazon or £6.99 on Kindle.   

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.