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engineering her destiny

PEOPLE: In her engineering work on projects such as the subject of this week's building study, Plashet bridge, Megan Maclaurin of structural engineer Techniker draws on a truly eclectic range of work and life experiences.

Megan Maclaurin has certainly had an eventful life. Having travelled the world and done many things that many an ex student from the '70s and '80s would have done, she seems able to rationalise her experiences better than most.

I met up with her on one of the hottest days of the summer at the offices of consulting structural engineer Techniker, for which she is now project director after having worked for it for only two years.

While all around were struggling in the weather conditions, she was remarkably cool, in more ways than one. We chatted about her education and her travels, and she seemed able to package a variety of events in her life into a coherent personal development plan.

Born in north London, the daughter of a doctor and an artist, she admits to having had only a nominal interest in engineering sciences in her early life. However, while in her last years in school, she applied to go on an engineering summer school, 'Women in Engineering' (now known as 'Insight'), which seems to have been the spark for her eventual career choices. Maclaurin decided to attend the five-day residential course, which still runs every year in Scotland, because she 'thought it would be creative', but also because she felt that engineering was a 'good discipline to keep [her] career options open'. Just in case she tired of engineering, maybe the breadth of study - from mathematical sciences to practical industry - would enable her to try other things later on.

Studying civil and structural engineering at Edinburgh University, she was disappointed that her ideas for more 'creative' applications of engineering were not being realised. She decided to stay with the course but, on completion of the degree, applied to Harvard University to do a oneyear masters in design studies. She sought to find the creativity she craved to round her career plans; swapping what she called Edinburgh University's departmental 'Portakabin' for Massachusetts' wellfunded Graduate School of Design.

She describes Harvard as a having 'an amazing atmosphere' of learning and experimenting. She specialised in research in housing, but the course is aimed at increasing an individual's knowledge-base 'which can be beneficial when they return to work'. It was at this point that Maclaurin began to experiment more with form and design, and realised the benefits of crossfertilisation of ideas between disciplines.

On her return to England, she worked for Alan Baxter in London, getting chartered status in 1995. 'Working, ' she says, 'was the real beginning of becoming an engineer, and I was fortunate to be given interesting schemes that helped to round my abilities.'A refurbishment of a derelict 17th-century stately home allowed her to 'experiment with stone, wood and steel', while the conversion of a laboratory into lecture theatres gave her insights into management and organisation. 'I learned a lot, ' she says.

Meanwhile, she had 'married a mountainclimber', and both had decided to travel while they were still young. Matter of factly, Maclaurin explains that they 'ended up in Bangladesh' and, as she had 'always wanted to work in development', they rang up the local development agencies to find work.

One local non-governmental organisation with a construction department 'was in disarray', and Maclaurin was taken on to run it, with a programme of providing at least 200 schools per year. 'These were community schools, ' she explains, 'comprising three rooms or so. The construction department, when we got there, was designing in steel, concrete and brick, because they equated these materials with modern production.

Over there, modern equals good.

Unfortunately they didn't have the materials or the skills to maintain this programme.'

She adds: We helped to design 'primitive' buildings using indigenous materials - mud and bamboo - made with baked clay bricks, corrugated sheet roofs with bamboo net insulation. All buildings had natural ventilation.'

When I questioned whether alternative technology undermined the aspiration for real technological improvements in standards of living, she was adamant that, given the 'struggle with local bureaucracy and corruption. . . and a dearth of materials and skills, this was the best practical solution to a real need'. She continues: 'We did some disaster-relief work of beautifully detailed mud and timber houses which remained intact - after concrete posts, which had been donated, had collapsed. In the end, we provided 300 schools in two years. . . which made a difference.'

From Bangladesh they went to Singapore for a year, where she worked with Harris & Sutherland on a variety of 'challenging' jobs.

Singapore is not 'cutting edge', she says. 'They don't want to experiment in construction methods. The real challenge is volume and speed.' On the first day in her new job, she was designing piles for a skyscraper - which she had never done before - and working to pressure deadlines. Within the year she had worked on low-rise schools, offices, and the regeneration of a temple. At the end of that year, however, she was 'chomping at the bit' to come back to London, which she describes as 'the most exciting place to be a structural engineer'. Even during the course of her travels, she had been 'keeping in touch with the market in London', and knew exactly what kind of work she wanted to do and who she wanted to work for. She was given a job at Techniker straight away, and has since worked on a variety of high-profile schemes (see building study, pages 28-35).

Maclaurin comes across as someone who has taken considerable time to consciously order her life. This is no bad thing. Has she learned from fortuitous events, or has she created events from which to learn? Is this post-rationalisation or has Maclaurin really made conscious decisions throughout her life and about her life? Is this the fertile imagination of a creative in action or the rational brain of the engineer?

These are the intriguing, philosophical questions which, while residing in the back of many peoples' minds, are at the forefront of hers.

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