500 Words

Confessions of an Engineer

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.

Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.

A straw bale house
A straw-bale house. Credit: White Design

But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.

But if education is really about life long learning then I should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what is necessary to solve the problems ahead.

And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.    


For more info on the straw-bale house on wheels see: http://kwmc.org.uk/projects/wecanmake/

For good bed time reading to your children and deep philosophical challenge for yourself I can highly recommend both ‘Stuck’ and ‘Shhh We have a Plan’.

Intrigued to see what a lecture given in the medium of children’s books might look like? You can see James’s Best of Bristol lecture here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

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