Book Review: Built

by Don Friedman on March 12, 2018

Roma Agrawal is an engineer based in Britain with an impressive resume. Her design experience is quite varied, but to some degree dominated by her work on the Shard. She has written the recently-published Built, which is perhaps best described as a primer on civil engineering and civil engineers for the vast majority of people who are not engineers. This in itself is a real achievement: every similar book I’ve seen is either too broad and too basic or aimed at architects rather than a general audience.

Structural engineering is a subset of civil engineering, and Agrawal and I are both working as structural engineers. Built covers a number of topics that are part of the broader world of civil engineering, including transportation and, everyone’s favorite, sewage. Bridges, dams, and waterworks are part of the built environment and the division between those structures and buildings is one of professional specialization rather than inherent differences. Her decision to discuss all aspects of civil engineering makes sense for a general audience, for whom the reasons that engineers who design buildings don’t also design bridges must seem incredibly obscure.

By casting a wide net, Agrawal had the opportunity to spend a chapter discussing a personal hero of hers, Emily Warren Roebling. That struck home with me because, as I’ve talked about, the story of the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington Roebling played a role in my decision to become an engineer. Everyone has heard stories of young people being inspired by a great teacher to become teachers, or by a family members’ illnesses to become doctors. We need more stories of how people were inspired to become engineers; Agrawal describes Emily Roebling’s role in the bridge construction in detail and includes a picture of the plaque on the bridge that provided Roebling her well-deserved but belated recognition.

Agrawal is an excellent writer. I am not going to say “an excellent writer for an engineer” because that phrase is, honestly, an insult. She has an engaging and clear style that more people in general could emulate and which is well-suited to explanations of potentially difficult material. Since I am (I hope) familiar with the engineering aspects of her book, I was free to think more about how she explains concepts than the concepts themselves. Tuned mass dampers are, for many people, counterintuitive, and she does a nice job of describing how they work.

Some of the examples – such as the Thames Tunnel – are stories that have been told many times; one – the kariz of Iran – was entirely new to me. All are treated with respect for the reader and with attention to the small details that make them interesting in an engineering sense. I am not going to describe the subject matter here: if you’re not an engineer, you will enjoy learning about it; if you are, you will not only enjoy a new angle on it but you will make a note to recommend this book to people who want to learn about engineering from the outside.

Finally, I want to discuss a curious cultural artifact that has nothing to do with the book itself or Agrawal. The image above is the dust jacket of the US edition of the book, the edition that is now in the OSE library. The original UK edition has this cover:

The text is the same, the line drawing is similar but truncated, but the big change, obviously, is the switch from a brightly-colored background to solid gray. I don’t know if that represents the views of the American staff of Bloomsbury Publishing on engineering – that it is unrelievedly gray – or some market research about book-buying proclivities in the two countries. It is very odd.

Addendum, March 16: The NYT agrees with me about the book’s content, doesn’t address the cover.

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