Meet Sarah Prichard our new UK Managing Director

Dr. Sarah Prichard recently became the Buro Happold UK managing director. To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, we caught up with her to find out about her career so far, how engineering has changed, and her plans for the future.

What made you become an engineer?

I became an engineer by chance, although I had always liked science and been encouraged to study it and other practical things at school and at home. I was really torn about whether to become an engineer or a historian, as I had the opportunity to study a wide range of subjects right up until my final school exams. Having finished these, and still being torn, I tossed a coin, and it came engineering side up – you learn a lot by listening to your emotions when faced with the outcome of a coin toss. I thought, that’s great, that’s what I am going to do. I put the history in a ‘box’, to be enjoyed more informally, and studied engineering in Trinity College Dublin for four years, first getting a degree, and then my PhD in the response of concrete to impact. Having done that, and wanting to use all that I had learnt and design ‘real’ buildings, I joined Buro Happold as a graduate, back in 2001.

I feel really passionately that at Buro Happold we only design great buildings where we think about everything, rather than just the civil or structural engineering. For example, I love examining the ICT and seeing how integrated it is, or the fire engineering and how that works.

Engineering is all about delivering something really special, working with clients to deliver their vision. I’m no less passionate about it now than I ever was.

What’s been your most challenging project so far?

The Mshereib Downtown Doha Project, which took me out to the Middle East for three and a half years. I was involved in the structural design side to start with, for just over two years. I was then given the opportunity to get on site and deliver the project. I went from being just a structural engineer, to being the engineer responsible for delivery, alongside the contractor’s team.

There were 25 buildings, over a four-storey basement, developed as part of 100 buildings all being constructed simultaneously. I was dealing with my team of 20, the architects, the contractor and client team, and project managers, all at once! I was the focal point for Buro Happold and was expected to answer any question at any time. It was incredible to have brought all those engineering aspects together. That was really challenging, and really career and character building.

How did you deal with the patriarchal nature of the work in the Middle East?

There was an initial shock, a sort of, oh my, you are in charge? I’m five foot three and generally you will find me with a smile…which is not the norm for on-site staff in the Middle East. After that initial phase, those who I was working with did not mind fundamentally whether I was a woman or not. The question was, can you do the job?  And I could do it, and good humouredly. I could make them listen to me, by knowing my stuff, understanding where they were coming from, listening to their concerns, bringing in my experience and my team’s experience.

On site, the contractors always addressed me as ‘sir’, because there had never been any other options to explained to them, and had never worked with a senior woman on site. The senior contractors said they had never known what it was like to work with a female engineer and commented that my ability and attitude of just getting on with the job made me think about how they treat their wives and daughters and their potential to have a wider range of careers.

The responsibility I held was huge – particularly over the scale of the project and being the prime point of contact for our works on site, in a country where Buro Happold did not have an established office. Also, I felt responsible for being that person who helps other people understand that women can be both senior leaders and engineers.

What are your views on getting more women into senior roles in construction?

It is going to take time. When I did my degree, about 10 per cent of the group were women. There is huge attrition out of engineering for all sorts of reasons in both sexes. In Buro Happold and in the industry generally, we need to support women in staying in engineering, as it is an amazing career. I want to reassure other women that it is perfectly possible to do this job. Buro Happold is very much a meritocracy at all levels.

What does your new role entail?

In the UK, we used to have three different business units, and two years ago, these were merged into one unit, to try and make sure it was efficient and we were getting the best out of everyone. I became the Engineering Director responsible for uniting and leading the multi-disciplinary engineering teams; and subsequently the Engineering and Operations Director. I’ve had two years of getting to know the whole of our UK business, split over five offices, understanding both the teams and the operational function. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to become the Managing Director.

What are your aims in your new role?  What do you hope to achieve or change?

It is really important that we build on what’s been created before. I think sometimes people in new roles think they have to break everything down and build it back up again – that uses a lot of energy and creates a lot of angst. There is lots I want to tweak, but the most important thing is that we continue to move forward with lots of technological brilliance, and client care, for which Buro Happold is well known, so we can apply the best knowledge and Buro Happold ‘brains’ to realise the visions of our clients and collaborators.

How has engineering changed?

Engineering increasingly uses modern technology and modern computing power to solve problems. We have gone from using simple computer programmes and Excel to analyse things when I started to a full use of BIM (Building Information Modelling) to analyse and optimise our designs, and the future potential of this to our business is immense. We are now able to work in four dimensions, introducing the elements of time and change, and employ engineering scripting on so much of what we design and develop.

Our client’s visions are realised, their needs are met. Whatever they want to create, we help them to make it not only possible, but better than they originally imagined.

How can we make engineering more attractive as a career, both to men and women?

At GCSE level, it is too late. We need to be talking to schoolchildren who are very young about the options in science or engineering available to them. There is no gender imbalance at this point, there is no reason girls can’t be engineers. Also, we need girls to believe in themselves. One of the worst things that happens over time is that girls lose faith in their abilities.

I have a son, and part of the challenge is encouraging him, in his interactions, to never think that a girl can’t do whatever he or his friends can do. We all, as engineers, need to talk about what we do, and be proud of it. We do an incredible job of creating sustainable futures and improving the lives of people throughout the world.

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