Smith and Wallwork structural engineer Katie Symons describes how a human model of the Forth Railway Bridge inspired her to be a structural engineer.
Describe your job
I’m a structural engineer, designing building structures. I work for Smith and Wallwork, a small company of ten people, and we work on all sorts of construction projects, but being in Cambridge we do have a particular expertise in the education sector: from small primary schools up to master planning of university campuses.
What do you most look forward to on a Monday morning?
I’ve always got a long list of things to do so I am always keen to get in and get stuff done.
I find communication and collaboration the most rewarding part of my job. Talking to architects, contractors, clients, about how we approach a particular design issue is really important. Bouncing ideas off colleagues is also really useful and fun.
What’s the most exciting part of your week?
Going to site and seeing a building I have designed rising out of the ground. We do a lot of cross laminated timber (CLT) buildings, and the speed at which they are erected is incredible. It’s a prefabricated building system so there is very little waste on site and it’s watertight very quickly.
Why does your job matter?
Because globally we have a growing, urbanising population, and that means more buildings will be needed. We also have a carbon problem, so we can’t afford to keep doing what we’ve done in the past in construction. We need to use innovative technologies to deliver buildings more carbon efficiently.
What specific skills have you learned through the job?
I learn something new everyday, which I sometimes find hard as it makes me realise how much I don’t know. But on the other hand it’s exhilarating and I think pretty special: how many bankers learn something new every day?
The skills that are important in my job are prioritising, knowing how to make decisions fast, and most important of all, good communication.
What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
As an engineer, I’ve been lucky to have had opportunities to work abroad as well as in the UK. I worked in Denmark for a while on large waste-to-energy plants: it was fascinating to get to know a completely new industrial process I knew nothing about previously, and contribute to the development of a plant. Apart from when I was in Denmark, I’ve always worked in small offices, which means I haven’t much experience in big headline-grabbing buildings. But the projects I have worked on have been solely my responsibility, right from when I started after graduation (with some supervision of course). That experience of having to sort out every aspect of a building’s structure, from the foundations to the cladding support details, is very rewarding.
How does your role impact on the built environment?
The ‘high mass’ elements of a building (structural frame and foundations) account for over half of the embodied carbon of buildings. We’re going to have to do something about reducing those emissions if we’re serious about tackling climate change in the construction industry, and as the people responsible for designing and specifying those elements, structural engineers have a massive role to play in reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment.
How do you explain what you do to your friends and family?
Normally when I say I design buildings, people think I’m an architect. So I say it takes a lot more people than the architect to get a building built: it’s a real team effort. I’m the person in that team that makes sure the building doesn’t fall down.
What was your route into the industry?
I did a general engineering course, although I think I’ve always been interested in structures. I remember a project I did at primary school about bridges where I was really captivated by that photo of the human model of the Forth Railway bridge from the 1880s, demonstrating the principle of a cantilever bridge. I did a work placements in electronic engineering, but at university I found I was most interested in the design of big things, I like the fact that you can see buildings from a distance and say to people “I designed that”.
Forth bridge demo
How far removed from the traditional role of the civil engineer do you think your job is?
As a consultant, traditionally we are appointed by the end user/client, and have had a good relationship and strong lines of communication with them. With the popularity of design and build contracts, we get more and more work through contractors. And with the growth of project managers as a role, even on fairly small projects, it’s becoming harder to engage meaningfully with the client when it matters, so we as engineers need to keep being savvy about that.
Did your role exist five years ago?
Yes, although things have changed. BIM has changed the way we work with other designers, mostly in a positive way, but not always. I still don’t know a project extranet system that is easy to use. Timber buildings are a lot more common, which is great, it’s a proper mainstream material now. It’s also more common to hear of people working part time, men and women.
How do you see it changing in next five years?
My job is about designing, but then just as importantly communicating those designs. As technology develops, we’re going to have to adapt to new ways of designing and communicating. Engineers will probably have to use CAD more, as architects do, in order to get our ideas out there faster. We’re going to have to meet the challenge of lean design, so we must get better at understanding the quantities of materials we use in our design, and trying to reduce them wherever possible.
What is the logical career progression for you?
I’m really happy where I am, working with engineers that inspire me and challenge me to always up my game, not just copy what I did last time. I’d like to think I could inspire other engineers to do the same in the years to come.
What’s going to be the most exciting thing about it then?
I want to show young people that engineering is a rewarding, fulfilling and important career, for girls as well as boys. I go into schools quite a bit to try and do this, as I think it’s important school pupils get to see real engineers and find out what they do. If I can persuade a young person to choose engineering above an alternative career, then that is really exciting.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming an engineer?
Don’t look at starting salaries. Think about what will motivate you to go to work each day. Because if you’re motivated, you’ll progress faster and get paid more anyway. And what could be more motivating than engineering? I do look at some people’s jobs and wonder what value they are adding to society. You’ll never have that problem as an engineer.
What would you be if you weren’t in this role?
Looking after my three small kids is an obvious answer. But they’re growing up fast, soon they won’t need me at home. And I want them to see that being a working mum is a normal thing to do.