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Building on success: Meet Sara McGowan

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2007

Sara McGowan has found her perfect job. Her skills in science and art combine in the design of environmentally efficient and beautiful buildings for the 21st century. Find out more about Sara McGowan, engineer...

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A degree in building design engineering led Sara to her job of making sure state of the art buildings are as cool on the inside as they are on the out. She uses physics and maths to calculate the right temperatures all year round, and an artistic talent ensures her plans are in-keeping with the architects' designs.

Meet Sara

What do you get out of your work?
"When a job is finished and you can look at it and say "I did that", it's amazing. It's really satisfying to say, "that's mine"…"

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It’s fantastic. It’s a great job. You spend a year and a half, two years, three years, whatever it is, designing something and the blood, sweat and tears that go with that, and at the end of the day it’s really satisfying to actually be able to say that’s mine, I was involved in designing that, I helped put that building together.

 

How did you get into engineering?
"I really had absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for as a job…"

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You can go off and do a lot of things. People like the way that engineers think, it’s quite analytical, it’s logical, it’s organised. So I think as a base degree it can take you just about anywhere. In terms of actually doing the job, I think it’s a shame that more people don’t go into engineering. I don’t think people realise, particularly in the building industry, just how exciting it can be. I never know from one day to the next what I’m going to be doing. I’ve worked on so many different types of job, and if you like working in teams and you’re fairly creative, as well as liking science, then engineering is absolutely, it’s the combination of the two, it’s a creative application of science and if you want to do a bit of both then I couldn’t recommend anything other than engineering really.

 

Would you recommend engineering to others?
"I would recommend engineering to anyone, as a degree you can do anything, it teaches you to solve problems, and it's great if you're both creative and want to do science…"

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It’s funny, I did architectural engineering so I have a rough idea how buildings go together and the people involved in the team and how it works and what I might be doing, but in terms of the type of work I’d never really thought about that at all and I moved to London and the first thing I did, my first day at work in fact in London was to go to a champagne reception at the Royal Opera House because that my first job. [Laughing] Which was like wow! I could get used to this. And, you know, I did a little bit of work on the facades actually on the Royal Opera House and then, you know, moved on and did some really interesting jobs. I did a rowing clubhouse, I’ve done several office buildings, I’ve done a law courts and, you know, the variety of work is brilliant. And I never quite know what my next job’s going to be and it’s always something different. So that, you know, really keeps your enthusiasm, keeps your interest.

 

What are your ambitions?
"I want to carry on doing what I'm doing because I really enjoy it. And also get into a position where I can influence changes to make buildings more efficient…"

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I want to get better at it and I want to see buildings get more efficient and for us to find better and simpler ways of doing things that we do now. I’d like to see façade design become a far more critical part of what we do and I’d like to be involved in that happening. It’s things like that where I can see that I’m in a position where I can potentially have an influence. I’d certainly like to continue moving up through the industry to where I am in a position to influence things at a higher level and see change happen.

What did you want to be when you were little?
"A vet, but unfortunately I discovered I passed out at the sight of needles, so it was not to be! I then decided that I wanted to be an artist."

What were your favourite subjects at school?
"Art and Physics."

What did you study in the sixth form?
"I studied Highers and SYSs (Sixth Year Studies) in Scotland. Highers in Maths, Physics, Art, English and French. SYSs in Maths, Physics and Art"

When and where did you go to university?
"I graduated from Strathclyde University in 1995. I studied Building Design Engineering and I got a First."

What were your ambitions after your degree?
"To work for Arup (a large engineering consultancy) and to get involved in low energy building design."

Have you any further degrees or qualifications?
"I'm a Chartered Engineer and Member of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers. I just completed my Project Management exams and am now an Associate Member of the Association of Project Managers."

What jobs have you had since your degree?
"I started work with Arup straight after graduation and have been here ever since - so that's one ambition achieved!"

What are your ambitions now?
"To present Tomorrow's World and go white water rafting!"

What was your first paid job?
"Working in a small health food shop in Edinburgh. It was great fun. We had lots of regular customers and I enjoyed the "social" side of working there."

What three luxury items would you take to a desert island?
"Books - I read A LOT, I couldn't survive without at least a dozen of my favourites, like Raymond Feist, some Iain Banks sci-fi and some thirty-something comedy angst (Jane Green, Marian Keyes…). Some white wine to de-stress after a long hard day on the beach and all the Buffy videos (plus TV, video and power source of course) - nothing like a bit of good versus evil demon and vampire slaying to cheer me up."

What was the last thing that you cooked?
"A quick veggie stir fry with lots of chilli. Delicious."

How do spend your Sundays?
"Reading, walking, cycling, maybe even some retail therapy, but my main aim is to relax - weekends are too short as it is."

Whom would you most like to meet (dead or alive)?
"Nelson Mandela, John Harrison (who solved the Longitude problem), James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story is one of my all time favourite movies), I can"t pick just one!"

Who or what would you put in Room 101?
"People who don't let you off the tube first, people who don't press the "wait" button at pedestrian lights and expect them to change by magic, wasps (I know that as a vegetarian I should love all living things - but they are vicious little creatures)."

 

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