Book Review of “Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures”

“Brooklyn Bridge”, Image by Antti-Jussi Kovalainen

During the summer of 2010, I worked in an office directly across the street from the World Trade Center reconstruction site. For several months while my floor was being renovated, my temporary office windows faced west looking out onto the early construction of One World Trade Center. The daily swirl of highly coordinated planning and building was one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. Hundreds of specialized craftsmen, managers, engineers, materials suppliers and numerous more worked in complete sync with each other to precisely anchor and assemble the tremendous base of the structure. Then they began steadily assembling the 104 stories of steel, concrete and glass above it climbing inexorably towards the sky.

Each day I looked out the windows and marveled at this modern miracle as it continually coalesced into one of the tallest buildings in the world.It was as exciting and entertaining to watch in person as any concert, movie or ballgame.

So, how did this magnificent monolith go from blueprints and computer visualizations to a finely tapered tower expressly intended to endure over time, meet all the modern business and technological needs of its occupants, embed environmental comfort, ensure local building code compliance, and remain state-of-the-art safe? Quite simply, who makes sure that buildings like this and many other structures such as bridges and stadiums actually stand up straight and stay that way?

Measure Twice

“The Shard”, Image by Mike Dixson

Among the many key participants in these processes are the structural engineers. They play an integral part in making certain that everything built is comprehensively planned and assembled strictly in accordance with all relevant design specifications. Yet might this sound a bit too math-geeky to want to learn anything more about them? Well, not anymore.

First-time author and accomplished structural engineer Roma Agrawal ( @RomaTheEngineer ), has recently written a fully engaging, highly informative and deeply inspiring 360-degree look at the work of these professionals entitled Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2018). She has admirably transposed the same high standards of skill and precision required to be a structural engineer into also being a writer.

In equal parts personal story, travel log, history lesson and Intro to Structural Engineering 101, Ms. Agrawal quickly captures the reader’s attention and deftly manages to maintain it throughout all 271 pages. From mud huts to coliseums to bridge to skyscrapers (among other projects, she worked on The Shard in London), we learn about who was responsible and how these creations were conceived and realized. For instance, when we admire the artistry of an archway in a building, we usually never consider all of the math, physics and fabrication2 that go into creating it. Built will give you an entirely new point of view on this and a multitude of other fundamentals of structural engineering. The text also contains a wealth of historical perspectives on how bridges, tunnels, buildings and even sewers helped civilizations to expand their populations, civil services and commerce.

The author also believes that structural engineers do not get the credit they really deserve. Nonetheless, her book is a persuasive brief for their successes in making all structures remain standing (including London Bridge and why it is not falling down), function properly, and endure extreme weather conditions and changing geological factors.  In effect, it expertly explains how they carefully process and manage a myriad of concerns about their buildings’ operations, longevity and safety.

By virtue of its own structure, the book’s 14 chapters covering building materials, design and safety principles, construction methods, noteworthy construction projects, and famous structural engineers span widely across the globe and many centuries. The lively prose is involving and evocative, so much so that these chapters could even stand on their own as individual essays. But read sequentially the mesh together to deliver a very rewarding reading experience.

Generously appointing the text are many accompanying hand-annotated photos and hand-drawn simple sketches delineating the critical principles and features being described. These simple graphics significantly support in the reader’s comprehension of some of the more sophisticated concepts as they are introduced.

Cut Once

The Colosseum, Rome, Image by Christopher Chan

There are three important themes skillfully threaded throughout the book. First, in support of the popular current movement to encourage more young women to pursue studies and employment in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM“), Ms. Agrawal’s success in structural engineering is intended to serve as a persuasive example for others. She writes that structural engineering is still a profession mostly practiced by men and believes that more women should consider becoming a part of it. Her advancement in this field should provide a high degree of inspiration for this intended audience as well as many other readers.

Of a truly great event very well told here, Ms. Agrawal recounts the remarkable story of her personal hero, Emily Warren Roebling. When the Brooklyn Bridge was being built (1869-1883), her husband, Washington Roebling, was the chief engineer on this project. When he became ill, his wife took over and become the de facto chief engineer. She delivered critical information from her husband to his assistants on site. Moreover, she mastered all aspects of the design, physics, materials and management of the bridge and is credited with having become the essential individual in getting this supremely complicated undertaking completed. Her devotion to this endeavor was simply extraordinary. Ms. Agrawal eloquently expresses her great admiration for Emily Roebling and why she was an inspiration for her own career path.

Second, she emphasizes the importance of being well prepared for all possible contingencies in her work. There are a multitude of variables to all be taken into account when building anything and it is imperative that structural engineers be able to anticipate, assess, test and decide how to definitively deal with all of them. Such unwavering diligence and exactitude is clearly applicable to many other jobs and professions. Ms. Agrawal effectively makes her case for comprehensive planning and precision at several key junctures in her writing.

Third and equally impressive is Ms. Agrawal’s boundless enthusiasm for her work. She so enjoys and believes in what she is doing that any reader in any field can benefit from from her example.  Granted that everyone’s work situation is different and often changeable can present a range of challenges. However, when someone like the author can sustain such genuine passion for the work she is doing, reading Built may well have the added benefit of providing you with a more positive perspective on your own employment as well that of others.

As proof, a new condominium was recently being built along one of my daily walking routes. I happened to be reading Built towards the end of its construction. After finishing the book, whenever I passed this site again, I saw all of the workers and their completed building with a newly enhanced understanding and admiration of it all.  I would never have previously had this appreciation without first relying upon this book’s, well, very solid foundation.

 


In a very different and more virtual context, a method for “building” a structure in one’s own mind as form of memory enhancement device whereby someone can then fill the “rooms” with many items that can later be retrieved and thus recalled at will was first devised in the 16th century.  This story was among the many subjects of a fascinating historical account entitled The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan D. Spence (Penguin Books, 1985).


1.   See the September 1, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled A Thrilling Visit to the New One World Observatory at the Top of the World Trade Center for photos and descriptions of the amazing views from the One World Observatory very top of 1WTC.

2.  See these 10 Subway Fold posts on other recent developments in material science including, among others, such way cool stuff as Q-Carbon, self-healing concrete (also mentioned in Built at pages 106 -107), and metamaterials.

Timely Resources for Studying and Producing Infographics

Image by Nicho Design

Image by Nicho Design

[This post was originally uploaded on October 21, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on January 30, 2015.]

Infographics seem to be appearing in a steadily increasing frequency in many online and print publications. Collectively they are an expressive informational phenomenon where art and data science intersect to produce often strikingly original and informative results. In two previous Subway Fold posts concerning new visual perspectives and covering user data about LinkedIn, I highlighted two examples that struck me as being particularly effective in transforming complex data sets into clear and convincing visual displays.

Recently, I have come across the following resources about inforgraphics I believe are worth exploring:

  • A new book entitled Infographics Designers’ Sketchbooks by authors Steven Heller and Rick Landers is being published today, October 14, 2014, by Princeton Architectural Press. An advanced review, including quotes from the authors, was posted on October 7, 2014 entitled A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How Infographics Are Made on Wired.com by Liz Stinson. To quickly recap this article, the book compiles a multitude of resources, sketches, how-to’s, best practices guidelines, and insights from more than 200 designers of infographics. Based upon the writer’s description, there is much value and motivation to be had within these pages to learn and put to good use the aesthetic and explanatory powers of infographics.
  • DailyInfographic.com provides thousands of exceptional examples of infographics, true to its name updated daily, that are valuable for both the information they present and, moreover, the inspiration they provide to consider trying to design and prepare your own for your online and print efforts. This page on Wikipedia provides an excellent exploration of the evolution and effectiveness of infographics.
  • Edward Tufte is considered to be one of the foremost experts in the visual presentation of data and information and I highly recommend checking out his link rich biography and bibliography page on Wikipedia and more of his work and other offerings on his own site edwardtufte.com.
  • October 15, 2014 UPDATE:  Yesterday, soon after I added this post, I read about the publication of another compilation of the year’s best in this field in US entitled The Best American Infographics 2014 by Gareth Cook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This appeared in an article about the publication of this new book on Scientific American.com in a post there entitled SA Recognized for Great Infographics  by Jen Christiansen. This collection includes two outstanding infographics that have recently appeared in  Scientific American about the locations of wild bees and the increasing levels of caffeine in various drinks, both of which are reproduced on this page. (One location where I would not like to, well, bee, is where these two topics intersect to produce over-caffeinated wild bees. Run!)

Please post any comments here to share examples of infographics that have impressed you or impacted your understanding of particular concepts and information.

January 30, 2015 Update:

Consisely Getting to the heart of succeeding with this web-ubiquitous form of visual display of information is a very practical new column by Sarah Quinn entitled What Makes a Great Infographic? , posted on January 28, 2015, on SocialMediaToday.com.  I highly recommend clicking through and reading it in full for all of its valuable details. I believe it is a timely addition to anyone’s infographic toolkit.

I will briefly sum up, annotate and add some comments to Ms. Quinn’s five elements to get an infographic to potential greatness. (The anagram I have come up to help commit these points to memory by using their first letters is: Try make your effort a GooD ACT):

1.  A Targeted Audience:  Research your audience well so that your infographic becomes a must share for them. As a part of this, focus upon what problem they may have that you can solve for them and use the infographic to provide solutions to it. Further, establish a persona define the ideal audience you intend to reach and then address them. (Personas are often the cornerstones of marketing and content strategy campaigns.)

2.  A Compelling Theme: Your infographic depicts “your story’ and must strongly relate with your brand’s identity.  The representative sample used in this article is entitled “Food Safety at the Grill” which does an effective job of guiding and educating the reader while simultaneously representing the infographic author’s brand.

3.  Actionable DataThis should be thoroughly researched and the numbers threaded throughout the graphical display. In effect, the data should support the solution and/or brand you are presenting.

4.  Awesome GraphicsQuite simply, it must be aesthetically pleasing while presenting the message. Indeed, the graphics’ quality will form an effective narrative. If you are outsourcing this, Ms. Quinn provides seven helpful guidelines to help instruct the graphics contractor.

5.  Powerful Copy:  This is just as important as the display and should include “powerful headlines” is presenting your message. As with the targeted audience in 1. above, so to should the text be compelling enough so that readers will be motivated to share the infographic with others.

New Interview Published with Apple’s Lead Designer, Johny Ive

One of Steve Jobs’ paramount concerns throughout his career was the design of Apple’s products. From the very start of the company, he insisted on maintaining the highest possible standards for the truly elegant look and feel of every aspect of his company’s products. In Walter Isaacson’s superb biography entitled Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011), this theme is often appears throughout the book.*

Apple’s lead designer, directly involved in the development of nearly all of their iconic devices, is Johny Ive. He and Jobs had a very long and highly productive professional relationship. Jobs often spoke of their deep friendship and mutual admiration.

Ive has been reluctant to grant many interviews during his career. However, he recently did speak with writer Robert Sullivan for an article that appears in the October 2014 issue of Vogue entitled A Rare Look at Design Genius Jony Ive: The Man Behind the Apple Watch. This is a terrific piece of journalism and a revealing insight into Ive’s background, design philosophy, influences and methods. Moreover, this piece is not merely limited to the recently announced Apple Watch, but rather, to a wide range of interesting topics. I highly recommend a click-through and full read if you have an opportunity. (See also its two sidebar stories about the watch and wearable technology.)

To briefly sum up, some of the key topics discussed here include:

  • His close following of blogs about design, Apple’s products, rumors and speculation about Apple’s pending products.
  • Apple’s top secret design studio were he works.
  • His lifelong passion for DIY drafting and building of real things.
  • How he and Jobs met, instantly “clicked” as a team and, in turn, how this lead to Apple’s laser-like focus on the philosphy, processes, materials and details of industrial design.
  • Professional relationship with another well known industrial designer.
  • The functionality, intentions and design perspectives that have gone into the Apple Watch

Mr. Ive has carefully and diligently distinguished himself as a singular creative force in a highly competitive global marketplace. I believe there is much to be learned from him in this piece for designers and and non-designers alike in many other fields, about how to excel in your work. Miss it not.

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*  According to an October 15, 2014 story posted on TheHollywoodReporter.com entitled Christian Bale in Talks to Play Steve Jobs, by Tatiana Siegel, the book is going to be turned into a movie. Negotiations are underway to cast Christian Bale in the lead role, with Danny Boyle directing and Aaron Sorkin writing the adaptation for the screenplay.