Najwa Jawahar is a senior structural engineer at WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff. Here she describes what it takes to do her job.
Describe your job
I am senior structural engineer at WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff and specialise in the design of tall buildings. I use my knowledge of engineering and my brain power, and apply them to the unique problems that I encounter on my projects.
In a typical week my work varies hugely. I get to develop structural concepts and communicate and solve design challenges with my team.
I use computer models to analyse behaviour of structures, produce calculations and sketches, think how my design will be constructed and oversee production of drawings which are shared with architects and clients. Away from the technical side, I mentor younger engineers in my team.
What do you most look forward to on a Monday morning?
Every Monday I look forward to a problem. It sounds strange, but engineering is really all about solving problems. I relish the challenge of being faced with something that may seem insurmountable, though I know that with some creative thinking it can be overcome. Structural engineering is so varied; our problems come in all shapes and sizes.
It could be design: coming up with a structural concept for ambitious architecture within the constraints of a central London site. It could be analysis: how best to translate the sketches we have into something we can analyse with maths and science. It could be construction: nothing is ever simple on site – as a structural engineer I must come up with structural solutions to work around the issues sites throw at us.
Why does your job matter so much?
Without engineers, there would be nowhere to live, nothing to eat, no clean water, no education, no health and wellbeing.
What specific skills have you learned through the job?
Problem solving, time management, team working, multi-tasking, creativity, innovation, written and verbal communication, confidence, project management and many more!
What stands out as the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
London Wall Place. It is a commercial development consisting of two office buildings, set in the heart of the City of London. The taller of the two is a 16 storey building supported by a storey deep truss system which allows the building to overhang 11m from the nearest internal column, offering open public space at ground floor.
How do you explain what you do to your friends and family?
I ask them to imagine, what it would be like if there was nowhere to sleep, no electricity, no clean water to drink, no good quality food, no roads to take us from one place to another, no offices, schools to get educated, no hospitals and no shopping centres.
Now imagine an artist with the power to build all that in their head and then use materials, mathematics and technology to change that into reality and shape everyday life for everyone. That’s us engineers!
What was your career route?
I followed a traditional route into engineering. I studied mathematics, chemistry and physics at A-level and then applied for a Masters in civil and structural engineering from the University of Leeds. I graduated in 2011 with a 1st class hons. and joined WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff as a graduate engineer.
Construction work on London Wall Place
Construction work on London Wall Place Source: Rob Farrow/Geograph.org.uk
How far removed from the traditional role of the civil engineer do you think your job is?
Not too far. Civil engineering is a very vast field which includes bridges and infrastructure such as roads and rail. Structural engineering is a specialist field within civil engineering which focuses on buildings. The skills required are similar to those of an engineer in bridges or roads or rail, but the application is different.
Did your role exist five years ago?
Yes! Structural engineers have been here forever. However, though the role and responsibilities are same, how structural engineers work is now different. For example, five years ago software, such as Revit, was still new in the industry so not many engineers were using three dimensional capabilities of the tools to visualise the actual building.
Nor were they using technology such as time-lapse ie developing and visualising a construction sequence before actual construction of the building, or 3D printing parts to create scale models of structural parts.
How do you see your job changing in the next five years?
I see time and technology playing a key role in how structural engineering role will look like in next five years and how the construction industry will operate. The future holds extremely challenging yet exciting projects to respond to the needs of a society, such as the constant desire to go taller; congested site locations; complex infrastructure both above and below ground; integration of technology into structures; retaining ageing heritage; and fighting against natural and manmade disasters while racing against time.
Extremely short turnover periods for the delivery of projects means engineers will heavily rely on computational tools and technological advancements.
The core skillset for engineering will transform from how it is today to the ability to think fast. Instant problem solving combined with 24- hour working periods across the globe will require multiple engineers with extremely efficient communication skills and fine engineering judgement to be able spot whether the computer output is reliable or not.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming an engineer?
Try it out! Either find yourself a summer placement or shadow an engineer for a week to understand what their role actually entails. This is very important as it helps you decide whether you are actually going to enjoy the role or not.
What would you be if you weren’t in this role?
If I wasn’t a structural engineer and designing buildings I would still be a designer maybe a website designer, a fashion designer or a portfolio designer (photographer).