The Shard almost looks like an elaborate ice sculpture. Standing at 1,016ft high above London, this iconic building is now officially the tallest tower in Western Europe. From a layman’s point of view I wonder how on earth this was built and who would be brave enough to dangle over 300m off the ground to place the last pieces of glass. Comprising of five key areas: office space, restaurants, a hotel, apartments and The View at the top which is now open to the public, this piece of engineering and architecture is over a decade in the making. Angela Bairstow spoke to Ms Roma Agrawal, who currently works for WSP Group in London and was Senior Structural Engineer on The Shard, on what it was like to work on such a high profile project and that you don’t necessarily need an engineering degree to be an engineer.
“In structural engineering, no two projects can ever be the same and that’s why I enjoy the job. I would get bored if I had to do anything else”
What was your involvement in The Shard?
I joined WSP after graduating, and this was the second project I worked on so it was very exciting. I started off doing the enabling works; before The Shard itself could be built there was existing Victorian structure and 60’s and 70’s structure that needed to be altered or supported in order to accommodate the new building.
How long were you working on this?
I spent two years on the enabling works and I got to work on some of the masonry viaducts that surround the site which was very interesting. After that, I spent about four years on the tower itself, where I designed the foundations at the base and the spire; the very top of the building where the viewing gallery is.
Were you ever intimidated to work on such a high profile project?
Not really. You have a sense of responsibility on any project you design because it is something that people are going to use and it needs to be safe.
Is The Shard a unique construction?
We did some engineering design and used construction methods that hadn’t been done before such as using the top down construction methodology on the core. This means we were digging and excavating the basement whilst the core was being built at the same time so the lateral system was being built while there was no foundation on the building. Also, the way we built the spire was quite innovative as we made it all into modules and tested it at the factory by doing a trial assembly, so that it could be built quickly and safely in the middle of London at quite a height.
I studied in India and I moved over here (to England) to study A-levels. I did physics, maths, design technology and further maths so I knew I was going to do something quite technical and science based. I then decided to study physics at Oxford University and whilst doing my degree I saw that my peers were either doing physics PHD’s or going into finance but I didn’t want to do either of those things, I wanted to do something in between- a job working with people which is also technical. I did a summer placement with some mechanical engineers and I enjoyed what they were doing. I wanted to be an architect when I was younger, so realised that structural engineering would be perfect because it combines the elements of physics and maths with design. So, I decided to do a masters in structural engineering at Imperial College which is a really unusual way of doing it because most other people in my office have an engineering degree.
Have you been faced with any obstacles to get where you are going?
I think the biggest obstacle was going from a physics degree to the masters in engineering. I spoke to the course director at Imperial College and he said people don’t usually come to them with a physics degree or a maths degree and choose to go into engineering but as I had strong mathematical skills they accepted me. I started the course and was the only person there who didn’t have an engineering degree so I found the masters tough because I was coming to it from a different background. I had to spend extra time with tutors and my peers to get up to speed.
How would you encourage young women to consider Engineering as a career?
I think it is just about awareness- people knowing what an engineer does. Engineers should be talking to students in schools and universities and saying if you like maths, physics, science and technology then you should consider engineering. It’s making sure that parents, careers advisors and teachers are also aware of the options within engineering because I find that when I go to schools and universities to talk, not just to women, but to all students, and tell them simply what I do then they find it really interesting.
What building in the world would you have liked to have worked on?
I think the Houses of Parliament. I’m really interested to know how engineers in the past put up these amazing buildings without any computer assistance, without CAD drawings and all the analysis and construction tools that we have now.
What’s next for you?
I am working on the refurbishment of a Georgian House which is really interesting as I’m learning about how people built things in the 1700’s. I’m also working on another project which is building residences near railways. I think the main thing for me is to have a variety of projects because I love doing different types of structures. In structural engineering, no two projects can ever be the same and that’s why I enjoy the job. I would get bored if I had to do anything else.
A little bit about Roma:
Roma Agrawal has a string of accolades to her name. She won the Young Structural Engineer of the Year award in 2011; she was a finalist in the Young Women Engineer of the Year Award (IET) in 2012; in 2008 she was awarded the Pai Lin Li Travel Award as well as becoming a finalist in newcomer of the year award by Building Magazine. Apart from The Shard she has also worked on 261 City Road; Crystal Palace Station Enhancement, Northumbria University Footbridge and ‘Hairywood’ at Covent Garden.
You can find out more about her from her website:
Or on Twitter: @RomaTheEngineer