Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Built by Roma Agrawal

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The opening lines of this book sent me straight back to an afternoon years ago when I was doing my A Levels. On Friday afternoons, we would periodically have speakers come in to talk to us on something our teachers thought would interest us. I don’t think any of us were particularly enthused at the prospect of a talk on the history of London Bridge – yet by the end of that afternoon, half the year group were studying their UCAS forms and wondering if they could change to studying Civil Engineering.

Roma Agrawal’s Built is full of the same infectious enthusiasm. A structural engineer who has worked on bridges and buildings including London’s iconic Shard, she takes you on a journey under the skin of city skylines and deep into their infrastructure. She shows how engineers use physics and maths to grapple with the complex intersection of forces from gravity and wind. She explains the difference between load bearing and frame bearing constructions, between tension and compression. She studies the nature of brick and steel and concrete and how those three materials determine so much of our built environment. She compares buildings that rely for their strength on an inner core to those that use an exoskeleton. She shows how the world’s tallest buildings have to be damped to prevent them from swaying. She explores at the challenges involved in providing our buildings with water and in taking away our waste.

In doing so, she looks at structures that have suffered catastrophic failure and others that have survived thousands of years. She takes us from the Taipei Tower in Taiwan, to an underground city in Anatolia; from a bridge in Japan that is a modern development of the ancient rope bridge, to a Cathedral in Mexico City that has been saved from collapse due to subsidence. (And imagine my delight when a run-through of five of her favourite bridges takes in Old London Bridge.)

Towards the end, she peers into the future of our built environment, imagining the possibilities opened up by developments such as 3D printing, bio-mimicry and self-healing materials.

This book was a joy to read! All the principles are explained simply and accessibly (with diagrams). And even if you don’t grasp some of the details, enthusiasm and wonder will carry you through. Agrawal will leave you with a profound respect for engineers and the magic they weave – magic that most of us scarcely give a passing thought to as we go about our daily lives.



You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Science of the Discworld series; Bill Bryson; Jared Diamond; Jacob Bronowski

Avoid If You Dislike: Getting excited about science and engineering

Perfect Accompaniment: A glass of bubbly to toast the minds behind some of the world’s greatest buildings

Genre: Non-Fiction.

Available on Amazon

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