City Skylines with Roma Agrawal

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Often considered to be the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building was completed on 1 March 1885, on the corner of Adams and LaSalle Street in Chicago. At 138 feet (42m) high, it wasn’t the tallest building in Chicago at the time – but its historical significance stems not from its height, but its engineering.

Made possible by several technological breakthroughs at the time, the Home Insurance Building differed from traditional construction methods by using a structure made from iron and, more importantly, steel. This gave it a unique architecture and weight-bearing frame. Compared to previous building designs – which had reached a practical height limit to avoid their weight-bearing masonry walls getting too thick and heavy – this new design proved lighter, stronger, and a more practical way to increase height.

Though there is debate over whether the Home Insurance Building was “the first skyscraper”, or indeed the first to use a steel frame, a combination of other factors helped it to popularize the idea. It provided a template for the second and third generation skyscrapers surrounding us today; it enabled, over a century later, the myriad of unique city skylines we now see around the world.

London’s skyline, in particular, has seen immense change over the centuries. Today, you need only turn your head to see yet another iconic structure towering above you: the “Walkie-Talkie”, “Gherkin”, or “Cheesegrater” for example. But with the number of skyscrapers continuing to grow, how do we future proof them to account for people’s needs decades or centuries into the future? How do we ensure that they complement their surroundings while still encouraging innovation? On what metrics do we define a good or successful structure?

We answer these questions in this episode of Create the Future with Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer who spent six years working on one of London’s most recent and distinctive additions: the Shard. We also speak to Roma about her work promoting engineering as a career, why female representation in engineering varies so significantly around the world, and what it was like to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz alongside Emma Thompson and Rita Ora.

About the Guest

QEPrize Ambassador Roma Agrawal is a chartered structural engineer based in London. She gained a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Oxford in 2004, and an MSc in Structural Engineering from Imperial College London in 2005. Roma has worked on several major engineering projects around the UK including Crystal Palace Station, the Northumbria University Footbridge, and the Shard, the latter of which she spent six years working on the design of its foundations and spire.

Roma won the 2011 Young Structural Engineer of the Year, the Royal Academy of Engineering Rooke Award for Public Promotion of Engineering in 2017, and made the Telegraph's top 50 women engineers in the UK list. She has given two TEDx talks and featured on several national television programs and published her book, Built: the Hidden Stories Behind our Structures, in 2018.

Episode Highlights

  • “Before you can even build a structure, especially in a city like central London, you have to think about what all the other structures are that are around that site … that's a bit like forensic engineering, I guess in some ways, because I was looking at these drawings, even from the 1800s, trying to understand how these historical structures worked before we even made any changes to them.”
  • “The reason I was keen to do that [the Leading Ladies campaign] was because, you know, again, I felt that if people saw my name and saw me and then saw my profession, which they said they would also talk about, so they said structural engineer. It might just make people think twice and say, ‘Oh, I didn't realise young women, young Indian women, wearing these glamorous dresses could be structural engineers’. So, you know, hopefully, I just made a few people think a bit more deeply about what structural engineers actually look like.”
  • “We also need to think about the longevity of our buildings. So, if our buildings are going to be there for 70 years, 100 years, then trying to anticipate the changes that can happen. And then one more area that failure sometimes happen in is during construction. So, where I was talking about before that construction is a staged process, the building could be absolutely safe in its final configuration, but while you're building it, the way the forces are interacting with your structure are different. So it is down to the engineers and the contractors who are building it to deeply think about what those stages are, what the forces are, and how that might affect that same beam or column in a very different way, in that temporary stage compared to the final stage and making sure it's strong enough.”
  • “There are a lot of young women that aspire to be engineers, so that's brilliant. I think there are some other different societal challenges that women face in India that could prevent them from going into the workforce. But again, things are sort of progressing and changing. But I do feel that a lot of young women aspire to be engineers, and that's often software-related, computing-related. But it's definitely something that young women think about. So, in some ways, I found the gender divide different. There is a still a gender divide in India, but it's different in the UK, where I was sort of surprised to see that young girls are often just told that this is not for them, or they think that it's not for them. That's a very different issue than I saw in India.”

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