To coincide with the Year of Engineering, our friends at Bloomsbury have published BUILT by Roma Agrawal, the structural engineer who was behind the Shard. With colourful stories of her life-long fascination with buildings – and her own hand-drawn illustrations – Roma reveals the extraordinary secret lives of structures, from the mud huts of our ancestors to skyscrapers of steel that reach hundreds of metres into the sky.

We were thrilled to have a Q&A with the author herself, as she discusses how her fascination with buildings began...


Where did your lifelong fascination with buildings begin?

I spent my early childhood in upstate New York, and often visited Manhattan. It was a completely different landscape than the small town I grew up in and I was fascinated. We moved to India - again such a different place - and I grew up there playing with blocks and building stuff with my parents every weekend. I always loved maths and science, and was lucky that I could combine all my interests by becoming a structural engineer.

What are some of the common misconceptions that people have about engineering? Why do you think we have these misconceptions?

The image of engineering in the media is one of hard hats and men who fix cars and boilers. While these roles do exist, engineering is so much more. From designing spacecraft and the Mars explorer, to robotics for amputees, creating clean water, and programming games and apps for our phones, engineering touches our lives every day. Being an engineer allows you to help people. It is creative and rewarding. We need to work hard with large, public campaigns, visit children in schools and educate teachers and parents to open their eyes to this incredibly diverse world.

Your book is full of fascinating stories about amazing feats of engineering. What was your favourite story?

My favourite story is that of Emily Warren Roebling, the wife of the engineer in charge of the Brooklyn Bridge. Spoiler alert! He has an accident on site and is left very ill. In the 1800s, it was unthinkable for a woman to be involved in construction, but Emily broke all precedent and ran the project for an amazing 11 years. She not only learned the complex engineering needed to construct this pioneering structure, but acted as 'peace-maker' when dealing with labourers on site and the politicians that challenged her.

What did you enjoy about the writing process for BUILT?

I studied physics and engineering at university but didn't learn much about the characters involved. I most enjoyed reading about all these (often eccentric!) visionaries - from Joseph Bazalgette and Fazlur Khan to Emily Roebling - understanding what inspired them and how they shattered barriers and came up with fantastic ideas.

Are you working on any new books/projects you want to tell us about?

At the moment, I am enjoying the talks and presentations to promote engineering and BUILT, I think I might have a children's book in me, one to think about! 

Roma explains two ways to build a building. See more videos here.

About Roma

Roma Agrawal is a structural engineer who builds big. From footbridges and sculptures, to train stations and skyscrapers – including The Shard – she has left an indelible mark on London's landscape.

She is a tireless promoter of engineering and technical careers to young people, particularly under-represented groups such as women. She has advised policymakers and governments on science education, and has given talks to thousands around the world at universities, schools and organisations including two for TEDx. 

Roma has published articles on engineering, education and leadership, as well as being a television presenter. BUILT is her first book.

BUILT is published by Bloomsbury and is available to buy now. Visit the Bloomsbury website and enter code BUILT at the checkout to get 30% off.