The mysteries of structural engineering are revealed in this educational children’s book that adults will also enjoy

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How do engineers adapt their building strategies to different types of soil? How was the Brooklyn Bridge built? What structure prevents an elevator from plunging to the bottom of an elevator shaft if the cable holding it up breaks? How was the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City saved from toppling over into the lake bed (and an ancient Aztec pyramid discovered in the process)? Or, for that matter, how was Ithaa, the world’s first undersea restaurant, constructed?

If you’ve ever pondered questions like these, then this is the book for you. Or for your kid, for that matter. Written by award-winning structural engineer, Roma Agrawal, who most famously built London’s Shard, How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures (Bloomsbury Children’s Books; available 16 September 2021: Amazon UK) shares the secrets of how a variety of stunning structures and buildings were made. Separate chapters detail how to build strong, how to build tall, how to build flat, how to build long, how to build on water (or underwater), how to build underground, how to build on ice, how to build on the moon and so much more.

Ms Agrawal, who is Indian-British-American, is also a champion of women and ethnic minorities in engineering. In this book, we learn a little about Emily Roebling (née Warren), who almost single-handedly managed the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge at a time when women were often denied an education at all, we meet Ada Lovelace, who invented the world’s first computer algorithms (she also lived at a time when women were often denied an education), and we are introduced to Katie Kelleher, a female crane operator who works in London right now in a highly male-dominated profession.

Some of my favorite parts of this book focused on the natural world, such as how self-healing concrete works, and how engineers are improving building techniques by studying the structures of bird bones and sea urchin skeletons. And I am always delighted to ponder the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, which is a bridge designed for boats. I was surprised to learn that the world’s biggest beaver dam, in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, is so big it can be seen from space! (In fact, satellite imagery was how it was discovered.) Since I’ve always been fascinated by Polynesians, I was especially interested to discover that Polynesian mythology helped design the innovative Te Matau ā Pohe bascule bridge that spans the Lower Hatea river in New Zealand.

Although written for children, this fascinating and accessible book will delight and educate adults, too. The descriptions are presented in clearly-written bite sized niblets that will especially appeal to younger readers, and these passages are located next to the relevant diagram or painting by illustrator Katie Hickey. Additionally, home-based activities are suggested throughout the book so children can try simple engineering projects for themselves.

In my opinion, this is one of the best children’s books published this year, and you don’t have to be a child or a structural engineer — or a structural engineer wannabe — to enjoy it. Highly recommended.

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