Families in history and now #buildingpassions

I’m travelling to a family reunion in London to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.

Families are important.

I write about two of them in my forthcoming book on the 19th-century Brunels and Barrys. The full title is “Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture”. The short title is ‘Building Passions’.

In the book, the two famous families of engineers and architects connect through John Wolfe Barry and his close friend and business partner Henry Marc Brunel. Their fathers were the great Victorians Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Barry, who were both Fellows of the Royal Society like their outstanding contemporary Charles Darwin. They also co-designed the 1851 Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace with Prince Albert, Joseph Paxton and others.

Families have roots and branches.

They come from somewhere and in most cases continue on, even if there are name changes along the way. Personalities appear, disappear and reappear through new generations.

This is all part of evolution and completely natural, in whatever way it may have first started.

The best families strive to work cooperatively with others for the wider good. This despite the temptation to care for their immediate lineage only.

In this way the world progresses and, we hope, avoids the pitfalls of personal greed and avarice that have become so visible today.

Engaging young people with engineering careers #buildingpassions

As I write this post I’m sitting in a school sports hall trying to interest the kids in engineering careers.

The problem is they aren’t really attracted by the discipline.

Mention maths and that particularly gets the cold shoulder.

By contrast the person with the fluffy dog which anyone can stroke and hug is like a magnet to teenage boys and girls.

How does one compete with such attractions?

You could train an animal or perhaps a cute-looking robot to design and build a structure.

My preference is to face the stark reality of the fact that maths still scares people. We have to lure them in without them knowing.

Therefore, we can’t oversell the immediate benefits of the profession until they are on board with the direction of travel. This takes careful planning across the ages and stages of education.

I have blogged elsewhere about the role of parents in their child’s education and how this relates to undergraduate level once their son or daughter becomes a legal adult in the UK.

To me good parents and carers have always been the key to unlocking career progress for young people at an early age. They set up the opportunities by helping to keep options open for their wards. Teenagers then take it forward with help from qualified adults in schools, colleges and then universities.

As always the devil is in the detail.

But reading my forthcoming book ‘Building Passions’ or Roma Agrawal’s BUILT may at least help get conversations started between parents and kids about the relevance of the built environment as a professional choice.

What has inspired people to build?

Why have some people decided they want to build structures?

This was the first question which entered my mind when I started my new job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers in January 2016. I was curious to know why young people would want to become structural engineers.

After more than two years of thinking about his, which has included conversations with active structural engineers such as Roma Agrawal author of BUILT, as well as many others in the built environment, I have a few pointers which I list below.

  • There are some jobs which require inspiration to get the best out of them – there are others which don’t, and things like money or benefits in kind can be attractive enough to do them.
  • Building structures is certainly a type of occupation that DOES need inspiration for the best results. Uninspired structures are a blight on humanity and our environment. In some cases they not only dull our lives but harm them as well.
  • Young people like to be inspired by things. Ask a group of UK teenagers what they think of building as a profession and they will say it’s about bricks, concrete, hard hats, physical work and getting dirty. Nothing particularly inspiring there.
  • However ask them what architects do and they will go on about designing amazing houses with incredible features, quoting TV programmes and presenters.
  • Finally, ask them what a structural or civil engineer does. Be prepared for the worst ranging from complete ignorance to some obscure link to mending a car or the home plumbing.
  • There are youth campaigns now such as ‘This is Engineering’ which are trying to fight against the negative cultural stereotype – indeed, a new set of inspiring videos will be released this Monday showing teenagers the excitement of engineering, including a structural engineer helping earthquake victims to rebuild their lives.
  • I personally believe that history is another medium to show the value of building and associated professions to new audiences. Roma’s book BUILT has tried to do exactly this. Another is ‘Mr Barry’s War’ by Caroline Shenton which is now out in paperback and describes the trials and tribulations of the architect of the New Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century.

The final word on this?

Parents.

Yes we all have them and many of us are them. We try to guide our offspring down the right career paths for them. Some of us can be very pushy! We need to be convinced that a job in a specific sector will be fine for our children. We have prejudices about certain jobs. We also aspire to better things, sometimes using our children to achieve this for us. We need to rethink our attitudes and approaches to building structures.