(above: The Birds Nest Stadium, Beijing)
Steve Burrows CBE has been a chartered structural engineer since 1986. He is currently USA Director of Buildings for WSP, the global engineering consultancy, having previously held senior leadership positions at Arup and AECOM. During his career he has worked on great projects like the “Birds Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Currently he is developing a world class indoor cricket stadium in Canada.
Steve also regularly appears on TV and radio shows about engineering. He presented “Engineering the Impossible” on the Science Channel and currently has a six part series, “Time Scanners”, on the National Geographic Channel, which looks at historic engineering projects like the Pyramids, the Coliseum and Machu Picchu.
Why did you choose engineering as a career?
I think I have been an engineer all my life, since playing with Lego as a child. I think we are all engineers deep down: everyone loves making things - whether its cooking, gardening or software writing, engineering is everything and everything is engineering.
Why the fascination with the media?
My TV shows, from “Engineering the Impossible” to “Time Scanners”, are informative but also aimed at showing engineering can be fun. I know that people have seen the shows and then decided to follow my career path, which is great, as I know it will provide them with a wonderfully satisfying life.
What can we learn from the ancients?
The brain of the ancient engineer wasn’t so different from ours. However, they did manage to do more with less, and that’s what sustainability is ultimately about. I believe the ancients can show us how to deliver solutions which are more in harmony with the planet. Today, when designing a large scale project, it’s very easy to source materials from all over the world - but doing so massively increases the carbon footprint of a project, due to the transport involved and other factors like energy intensive manufacturing.
Today’s engineers must always try to remember: Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. It’s a hard lesson to learn. It’s not easy to build with local materials which are extracted, processed and assembled locally - but the ancients did it and their solutions lasted a long time.
For me, that process of figuring out how to work with what we have is one of the joys of engineering: taking the limitations of a project and producing a synergy that seems simple in hindsight but is actually very smart. That’s what we can learn from the ancients - and unless we study history we will repeat its mistakes. We have so much to re-learn.
This is especially true as the scale of need is much greater now. Take something like rising sea levels: imagine the decisions we will have to make over the next century as coastal cities grow - it’s an immense challenge, yet we also have to feed, house and water a growing urban population and perhaps have to decide what we keep and what we give back to nature.
This challenge of sustainability will demand a lot of us, and force us to become even more inventive as we are constantly asked to do more with less. My own target is to try to build a building twice as fast for half the cost, using less material and labour - and leave a structure that requires less maintenance through its life. Set ambitious goals and you will move the ball down the field, accept the status quo and you might just be average.
How do you see the future?
The need for better engineering solutions is increasing exponentially and engineers are front and centre as solution providers. I believe this demand will fire our ingenuity, and makes this a great time in history to be an engineer.
Engineers sometimes bemoan a lack of public recognition, but I feel that recognition is not given away, it is earned. Many people in general society probably don’t understand what a structural engineer is, but whose fault is that? It’s ours! We have to tell our story through our people and our projects and therefore attract the best talent to our profession by giving young people something they can aspire to be- celebrating our success, where we deliver great projects on time and on budget, have fun doing it and show off our enthusiasm for the work we do.
Also the word “engineer” means different things to different people - mechanic to some, gas fitter or tradesman to others. Of course they are all professionals and do important work, but the structural engineer shapes the very world we live in, and we need to get that message out there by increasing our visibility - I have met some amazing engineers doing work that had me awe-struck, like Jurg Conzett and Cecil Balmond. I have always admired the incredible work of Jorg Schlaich - and the world should know them better because their work is not known as well as it should be.
We have to show off our inspiring people. We also need to show that we are not a male-only profession and shake off the crusty image of the gentleman’s club of engineers. We need to show how the engineering’s combination of logic and art can truly allow one’s imagination to become reality in a way few other professions allow.
Finally, I think engineering is still more reactive than proactive, more listening than speaking and more consequential than influential. We have a voice and it’s too quiet. So speak up engineers! Get involved in Government, get involved in bodies that have influence and make yourselves heard. We have so much to contribute to society and it would be wrong if we didn’t exercise our gift more extensively.
How would you describe structural engineering?
Engineering is the application of science with both art and economy.
But maybe a simpler way of saying it is: engineers build the world. Human marks on this planet are because of us. We can create a scar or heal a wound.
When we learn how to heal the wounds better we will affect more lives positively than any other profession.
That’s why engineers really rule the world.
Steve Burrows CBE, FICE, FASCE, MIStructE, CEng, PE, LEED AP