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Built

The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures

By Roma Agrawal
21-minute read
Audio available
Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures by Roma Agrawal

Built (2018) tells the story of some of society’s unsung heroes: structural engineers. Sadly, structural engineering tends only to enter the news when something goes wrong, like when a building falls or a bridge collapses. In Built, Agrawal gives a fuller picture of what it means to be an engineer, offering a range of stories and engaging tidbits about the structures of our world and the people who built them.

  • People curious about how buildings are made
  • Aspiring structural engineers
  • Students interested in the history of engineering

Roma Agrawal, a London-based structural engineer, worked on the Shard in London, currently the tallest building in western Europe. She is also famous for her initiatives to get people – especially women – interested in the field of engineering.

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Built

The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures

By Roma Agrawal
  • Read in 21 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 13 key ideas
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Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures by Roma Agrawal
Synopsis

Built (2018) tells the story of some of society’s unsung heroes: structural engineers. Sadly, structural engineering tends only to enter the news when something goes wrong, like when a building falls or a bridge collapses. In Built, Agrawal gives a fuller picture of what it means to be an engineer, offering a range of stories and engaging tidbits about the structures of our world and the people who built them.

Key idea 1 of 13

An engineer’s job is to build structures that can withstand the forces of nature.

On August 27, 1907, high above Canada’s St. Lawrence River, a crew of 86 workers were building the Quebec Bridge. Construction had been underway for four years, but on that fateful afternoon, a large section of the bridge collapsed. The disaster lasted less than 20 seconds, and 75 workers lost their lives.

Unfortunately, it’s usually only when something like this happens – when a chief engineer makes a miscalculation and disaster ensues – that structural engineering enters the news.

But the triumphs of structural engineering abound. Every intact building is a testament to the deep understanding that engineers have of nature’s forces, and of the stress those forces exert on artificial structures.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of force that put stress on structures: compression and tension.

When weight is placed on an object, force flows down from the weight, putting the object in compression. For instance, when you stand upright, your legs are in compression, supporting the force exerted by your body weight.

In contrast, when weight is hung from an object, force flows down and away from the object, putting it in tension. For example, if you were to pick up a bowling ball, your arm would be in tension.

If we were unable to channel these forces, we’d be incapable of building anything. So, early on, we devised systems designed to do just that.

Our ancient ancestors certainly knew how to channel compression, even if only intuitively. As far as we can tell, their first structures were single-story mud huts, which made use of the load-bearing system: the weight of the building was channeled down through its thick mud walls, putting them in compression.

At some point, our ancestors also learned about tension. Once they gained access to suitable trees, they began building houses by lashing logs together. They’d then seal the structure against the elements by draping animal pelts or woven plants over it.

Unlike the mud huts, these structures used the frame system: the weight of the structure was channeled through the logs, which, by pushing against each other, were in tension.

Compression and tension, and the two systems we came up with to channel them, have been integral to construction since the first buildings were erected. And they’re no less important today.

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