Create the Future: An Engineering Podcast

City Skylines With Roma Agrawal

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Episode notes

Often considered to be the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building was completed on 1 March 1885, on the corner of Adams and LaSalle Street in Chicago. At 138 feet (42m) high, it wasn’t the tallest building in Chicago at the time – but its historical significance stems not from its height, but its engineering.

Made possible by several technological breakthroughs at the time, the Home Insurance Building differed from traditional construction methods by using a structure made from iron and, more importantly, steel. This gave it a unique architecture and weight-bearing frame. Compared to previous building designs – which had reached a practical height limit to avoid their weight-bearing masonry walls getting too thick and heavy – this new design proved lighter, stronger, and a more practical way to increase height.

Though there is debate over whether the Home Insurance Building was “the first skyscraper”, or indeed the first to use a steel frame, a combination of other factors helped it to popularize the idea. It provided a template for the second and third generation skyscrapers surrounding us today; it enabled, over a century later, the myriad of unique city skylines we now see around the world.

London’s skyline, in particular, has seen immense change over the centuries. Today, you need only turn your head to see yet another iconic structure towering above you: the “Walkie-Talkie”, “Gherkin”, or “Cheesegrater” for example. But with the number of skyscrapers continuing to grow, how do we future proof them to account for people’s needs decades or centuries into the future? How do we ensure that they complement their surroundings while still encouraging innovation? On what metrics do we define a good or successful structure?

We answer these questions in this episode of Create the Future with Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer who spent six years working on one of London’s most recent and distinctive additions: the Shard. We also speak to Roma about her work promoting engineering as a career, why female representation in engineering varies so significantly around the world, and what it was like to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz alongside Emma Thompson and Rita Ora.

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