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Alumna Spotlight - Dr. Sarah Pritchard

Dr. Sarah Prichard, Alex Class of 1992, is the UK Managing Director & Partner of BuroHappold Engineering. Sarah is a structural engineer who has been involved in a number of projects including Aviva Stadium and Msheireb Downtown Doha. We spoke to Sarah this week about her work in engineering, collaboration, and leadership.

How did you become interested in structural engineering?

Whilst at a UCD open day in my last year in Alex, I attended an Introduction to Engineering lecture. I realised that the word ‘engineering’ combined my love of the practical with my interest in science and applied maths. I was slow to give up the idea of studying history, but after completing my Leaving Cert, I actually committed to studying engineering, realising that I could always continue my passion for history on a more informal basis. I tossed a coin to confirm my choice (you can always tell a lot about decisions by thinking about your emotional response to the outcome of a coin toss!). Whilst studying engineering in Trinity College Dublin, I finally decided on Structural Engineering as it gave me the opportunity to ‘build’ and really create something. 


How did your time at Alex influence your path?

Alex was great for me, giving me an opportunity to study a wide range of technical subjects and really allowed me to be confident in my skills in these. The Irish education system, with its wide range of subjects right until the end of school is excellent (now living in the UK, I can see the benefits even more clearly) and allowed me to keep my options open until I was ready to make an informed decision. I also benefited from the wide range of extra-curricular activities which developed my confidence and skills in leadership and organisation. 

What drew you to design and structural engineering? Why did you decide to go into the field following your PhD?

At the end of an exciting PhD, where I studied the response of concrete to impact (please note that if you drop a large lump of steel on a small lump of concrete, it breaks) I decided that I really wanted to create something, to design buildings, and to put the theory of what I had learned into practice. Engineers have a great opportunity to help shape the world and to leave a lasting legacy, and there is a very special feeling about standing in a building which you have helped to design and construct. I joined BuroHappold in Bath as a structural graduate, inspired by their recent work on the Millennium Dome and the Great Court of the British Museum, and their passion for integrated, sustainable engineering which enhanced the experience of the building’s users.The company had a young dynamic workforce and although it had less than 1000 staff, it seemed to really care about each of them, whilst it punched above its weight in terms of amazing projects which has recently been delivered and on which I’d have the opportunity to work. I’ve worked for BuroHappold ever since, and have really enjoyed certainly lived up to its reputation, and I do all that I can now to maintain this ! 

Your work in engineering involves a lot of interdisciplinary work with architects, construction firms, and other fields. What challenges have you faced when collaborating with different people, and how have you worked to overcome them?

One of the fabulous things about being an engineer is that you rarely create things alone. You are part of a design team who all need to collaborate and work together to successfully create a unique building. This is particularly the case when you’re on site, and I felt it keenly when I worked for three years in Doha, Qatar, overseeing the engineering aspects of the construction of Phase 2 and 3 of the Msheireb Downtown Doha project. The project aims to regenerate much of the city centre in a sustainable way for the 21st century, removing the urban sprawl and creating a landmark in this dynamic city, and we were responsible for the work on 25 buildings (2 hotels, a shopping mall, a mosque and numerous office and residential blocks) over a 5 storey basement. 

After 11 years in the office, I had matured as a design engineer, but leading Middle East site-based work would be an exciting new challenge, and not just from the technical perspective. The construction managers were outwardly accepting but clearly, despite having female colleagues, senior women were not usual! After an overly-polite start, their concerns began to fade as they realised ‘Dr. Sarah’ was able to deal capably with contractors, technical matters and shifting site politics, with a cheerful attitude that they were rarely able to mimic. Office meetings, with a male : female ratio of 20 : 1 became the accepted norm, and increasingly their concerns dwindled as I became a significant contributor to the project, politely making my opinions known without resorting to shouting or thumping the table! It wasn’t, however, as if they didn’t shout at me, and after a particularly tempestuous meeting with the client team, one senior manager sheepishly apologised as ‘he had never shouted at a woman before’. I smiled, inwardly chuckling, knowing that he had seen me as an engineer first and a woman second, and accepted his apology graciously. 

Things were equally challenging whilst out on the construction site. The site staff always addressed me as ‘sir’, as the default for someone in charge! The contractor’s team, whose work we supervised quickly understood that I was as conscientious as any other consultant. I was the experienced person my colleagues referred to when contentious issues arose, and was quick to act to help resolve a problem.

It did lead to some funny moments…I still remember the look on the senior construction manager’s face when I suggested climbing into the reinforcement cage of a deep base to look at a problem they were having. They hadn’t done so, but their staff and my colleagues had, I wanted to support my staff, and see for myself the issues that the contractor was brushing aside. I don’t know whether they were more worried about losing face by not accompanying me, or by actually having to inspect the work themselves. Anyhow, we quickly resolved the problem when we all got down there to look at it together !

My own ‘more-international’ expatriate staff were initially as confused as the site team about having a female boss. Indeed, on the first occasion we were on site together in the evening, resolving a problem with concrete supply, they questioned whether I needed to go home to cook my husband’s dinner! I reassured them that my husband was a far better cook than I and would have long-since have prepared the family dinner, and that my having to work late was a normal part of the family dynamic.

I often think of the statement by Helen Keller in reference to my engineering work... “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” 


On the flip side, how has collaboration with diverse groups of people enriched the outcomes of projects? 

One of our founding partners, Ted Happold said “The best work is done by the most diverse group of talents who can still live together.” We are ensuring that we create diverse teams, work with innovative collaborators, and forward looking clients, in order to get the best minds to create the optimum solutions. I think that this is particularly pertinent at the current time, where we are working to find ways to overcome the Climate Emergency. It is without doubt that working in a team with a diverse range of thoughts and viewpoints leads to stronger, more creative solutions, and if we are going to succeed in finding a path to Net Zero, collaborative working and diverse thought are never going to be more important. 


You mentioned your interest in history - how have you pursued your other passions outside of engineering?

History still remains a fascination to me - I completed a Diploma in the History of European Painting whilst undertaking my PhD and I continue to read about different aspects of history even now. It really informs my thoughts on politics, which I follow closely (although the last few years in the UK have been a bit challenging from this perspective !). I love to travel, and am a complete francophile. Of course...having an 11 year old boy is a full time job (outside work), so my life is a complex, exciting and, generally rewarding, juggle. 


What do you want girls interested in engineering to know about your career and experiences? What advice would you give your schoolgirl self?

When I was giving the Joan Kearney Science Lecture in Alex at the end of January, I shared two key principles which I use to guide me, and are advice I’d give to any one. Both are by Eleanor Roosevelt. Firstly ‘Life is what you make it’ and secondly ‘Do something every day that scares you’. The first reminds me that my life is in my control - if I work hard and focus, I tend to be busy, make progress, achieve what I want to, and be happy. The second reminds me that you have to keep challenging yourself if you want to develop, have a benefit from a growth mindset and never be bored. These are two pieces of advice I would give to anyone. As for a career in engineering - it is wonderful, challenging, rewarding and for everyone, and certainly for any Alexandrans ! At this time of the Climate Emergency, and the pursuit of Net Zero, there are real opportunities for engineers to make a difference, and help us succeed to design and develop a world which can respond to and overcome these challenges and in truth ‘do no harm’ to the future of our precious planet.