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An approachable introduction to structural engineering entertains and inspires

Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures

Roma Agrawal
308 pp.
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Roma Agrawal’s Built is a full-throated celebration of structural engineering, interspersed with clearly explained, hand-illustrated lessons on engineering fundamentals, including statics, fluids, and strength of materials. She is passionate about her profession, and with carefully curated and beautifully narrated historical and contemporary examples, she reveals the nuts and bolts of engineering ingenuity.

Seamlessly weaving together the technical and the social, Agrawal quietly illustrates the value of engineering skills related to cultural context, aesthetics, user experience, communication, teaming, sustainability, safety, leadership, and ethics. In doing so, she makes it clear that this is just what engineers do, part and parcel of professional practice.

Agrawal uses her deep global knowledge of engineering contributions to create a geographically inclusive celebration of engineering feats. The book balances innovative new builds like The Shard in London with challenging restorative projects in urban underground infrastructure and tried-and-true designs such as the Middle Eastern water transport system known as the qanat. There is something here for seasoned engineers and novices alike; classic narratives of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Hancock Tower are interspersed with more obscure examples, including a lovely description of spider silk as bridge material.

The book is organized into chapters with one-word titles such as “Force,” “Clay,” and “Fire”; each is a stand-alone piece that can engage a busy professional or accompany engineering course material without overburdening students. In-text citations would have been preferable to a source list in order to readily locate further reading or to trace back historical accounts constructed from primary sources.

In her touching tribute to Emily Roebling, who oversaw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in the late 19th century, one feels deeply the importance of this role model. In the field of structural engineering, women remain grossly underrepresented. “That she, as a woman, could traverse every social circle, and was welcomed by politicians, engineers and workers, her opinions heeded and instructions followed, was in itself proof of her exceptional skills, in an age when a woman’s presence on a construction site was unheard of,” writes Agrawal.

Agrawal’s structural engineering expertise is on display in her work on the iconic spire of The Shard.

With the force of her connection to Roebling, one wonders why Agrawal did not hold up a few more examples of women’s contributions to structural engineering. Women are not so rare in the field: Elmina Wilson and the Met Life Tower, Aine Brazil and the Hudson Yards development, Julia Morgan and Hearst Castle, and Hi Sun Choi and We’ve the Zenith in South Korea, to name a few.

Agrawal makes passing reference to workplace gender discrimination: “It’s hard to keep a straight face and conduct professional conversations about finite element modelling or soil strength profiles when I’m in a site office surrounded by pictures of naked women.” Stark in their normalcy and minimized as anomalies, her vignettes nonetheless may elicit a #metoo from many readers, as they serve to remind us how far we have yet to go.

Agrawal is almost absolute in her technological optimism: “The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations—for whatever we can dream up, engineers can make real.” She lauds Singapore’s desalination effort as evidence that “engineering can solve critical, real-world problems,” recognizing that “engineers and scientists across the planet will have to confront the escalating challenges of locating this precious liquid, creating new pathways to channel it, and enhancing the science to purify it.”

As Cape Town counts down to Day Zero in April, when running water will cease for some 4 million people, engineers and governments need to do a much better job understanding access to clean water as a sociotechnical system. Whiz-bang technical feats alone cannot solve our water crises. This points to perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the book: a missing discussion of how public policy interfaces with large engineering projects and the processes by which such projects are planned, funded, administered, and maintained.

In all, Built is a welcome addition to the library of accessible reads on engineering. It is globally inclusive, provides personal insight into the life and achievements of a broadly accomplished female structural engineer, and teaches key engineering concepts in an approachable and engaging way. It does all this while making visible and palpable the passion and care engineers bring in shaping our built environment.

About the author

The reviewer is the Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.