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Heading for the top

Working lives - Young structural engineer of the year Sally Preston is ambitious and thrives on complex problems with tight deadlines. She spoke to Dave Parker.

Last week Sally Preston was named Young Structural Engineer of the Year by the Institution of Structural Engineers for her work on a challenging office block in London.

In its citation the IStructE said that the award is made annually to a 'young structural engineer who has demonstrated outstanding performance and who shows exceptional promise for the future'.

There was added spice to the presentation ceremony in London's Docklands, as 27 year old Preston received the award from her boss, Buro Happold chief executive Michael Dickson, who is the current IStructE president.

It was her work on the complex 12 storey Palestra project, London that caught the judges' eye. Designed by architect Will Alsop, the building posed some interesting structural challenges, Preston says.

'It's actually a very large building with a 100m by 33m footprint. The architect has used a floating boxes concept to minimise the visual impact, using large composite raking columns which put significant horizontal forces into the structure.' Public reaction to these columns became something of a site joke. 'People passing on trains would ring us up to tell us the columns were leaning over, ' Preston reports. Another distinctive and technically challenging feature was a 9m composite cantilever.

She adds that early involvement in the project by the structural engineers meant she felt she was making a positive contribution to the aesthetics of the project as well as its structural stability and efficiency.

'This is quite common with Buro Happold, as we tend to get involved with the more technically challenging projects.' Preston joined Buro Happold after graduating from Sheffield University with a masters degree in structural engineering and architecture five years ago. She admits that the high profile practice was only second on her list of preferred employers - until she went for the interview.

'I initially thought I would prefer to join a smaller practice, although Buro Happold did attract me strongly because of the exciting projects it worked on. But when I went there, I was really impressed by the feel of the office and by the very good mentoring process for young engineers.' Now she says her employer is 'just the right size.' And her experience since she joined has diverted her from her original plans to qualify as both a structural engineer and an architect. 'My current role [as a structural engineer] continues to present me with multiple challenges in creative design, problem solving and mathematics.

'It's especially satisfying to be involved from the initial design stage through to onsite construction and then to seeing the finished building.' Currently Preston is working on several high profile projects in London, each at a different state of development. 'There's a very interesting hotel, and an office block just off Park Lane.

'I'm working with great architects and informed clients.

The constant need to solve problems and develop viable solutions within a tight time frame and budget can be quite stressful, but also very satisfying. And I'm not tied to my desk; I get the opportunity to see the building actually take shape as well.' Preston is frank about her longer term ambitions as well.

'Ultimately I want to be running a top company, ' she says.

'The male/female imbalance is a fact within the construction industry, but that shouldn't stop young women from pursuing a career in it. More women are coming through, and that can only be good.'

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