#engineeredHERway - Shona Wood

We hear from our Head of Architecture, Shona Wood who shares her WSP journey with us.

Tell us about yourself…

I am a RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) chartered architect and was appointed WSP Head of Architecture in March 2017. I’m originally from the Isle of Arran which is located just off the west coast of Scotland.  We have a small family cottage there and still consider it our home.

How long have you been with WSP and Middle East?

I joined WSP 4 years ago in 2015 as a Site Architect on the Ammroc project but I have been in the UAE for 27 years since arriving in Dubai at the beginning of 1992.

I had been working as a Site Architect for Sir Robert McAlpine in the Design & Build Division in Glasgow for several years as a site architect when my husband was offered the opportunity to relocate from Glasgow to Dubai on a 3 year contract to design and build the first hotel resort on Jumeirah Beach. They didn’t need to ask us twice.

I met my husband while studying architecture and we got married one month after I graduated so we’ve been on the same journey since 1985.

The project required two design & supervision architects so we jumped at the chance to escape the wet and windy winter weather of Glasgow for a site office located literally on the beach.

We didn’t know anything about living or working in the Middle East and had to find the UAE on a world atlas but we didn’t hesitate. Only 4 weeks after accepting the offer and renting our house we were on an almost empty Emirates flight to Dubai from Heathrow.

Looking back, it was a spur of the moment decision that we made on a dull and rainy Friday afternoon but it changed the course of our lives both personally and professionally and is a decision that we have never regretted.

The Jumeirah Hilton Beach Club was opened by HH Sheikh Mohammed in October1995 but was sadly demolished many years later to make way for the Four Seasons Hotel Resort. It shows how long I’ve been here when they have already built and demolished some of my buildings!

Why did you become an engineer?

Probably like many students I considered quite few and diverse career options between the ages of 16 and 18. I’ve always been interested in local and national politics so at one point considered a career in political journalism and there was a spell when I considered being a flat race jockey, even going so far as to apply to the British Racing School in Newmarket, much to my parents dismay.

Eventually, in sixth form, I decided on architecture as my dad was an urban planning engineer and I’d always enjoyed visiting his office and seeing how he created urban spaces. I also really liked the fact that architecture and engineering were not traditional careers for girls so it would be a real challenge.

When I enrolled at Strathclyde University, School of Architecture in 1978 there were 36 students in my year group of which only 6 were female. Of the original six only two of us completed the 7 year degree course and we sat the RIBA professional chartership exam together in 1986. The other girls transferred to different courses or dropped out within the first 4 years.

What has been your best accomplishment at work?

I have been fortunate to work on some really interesting and amazing projects during the course of my professional career, from award winning projects in the UK to some iconic and landmark projects in Dubai all of which have been challenging and rewarding in different ways.

However, I think my best accomplishment and the thing that I am most proud of is the work life balance that I have always tried to manage as a career professional and working mother.

There has always been much debate about whether it is possible as a female professional to ‘have it all’ in terms of a family and a career so my personal experience is testament to the fact that, yes you can, provided you have an employer and colleagues who acknowledge and support the challenges facing a professional working mum - which I have been fortunate to have.

My experience as a female engineering graduate and career professional has given me a unique and personally informed view of the challenges and barriers facing female engineers so I was delighted to be asked to participate on the WSP Gender Balance Steering Committee. Supporting the #BalanceforBetter campaign to identify and highlight some of the key issues affecting female professionals and help our global business to develop strategies to attract, train, develop and retain young female professionals is important to me.

What are you passionate about?

My family, gardening, my cat and all forms of creative design - particularly art and architecture.

I have three children who were all born and educated at JESS in Dubai. They are now all pursuing their artistic passions in various creative industries. My eldest daughter Emma works in film and video production in Dubai, my son Jack is studying illustration and animation at Brighton University, UK and my youngest daughter Jodie is at the Metfilm School, London, UK

As a family, we are interested in all aspects of creative design but particularly enjoy visiting galleries, exhibitions, degree shows and garden centres.

I find gardening really interesting and rewarding probably because it’s another creative process where you think about composition, spatial awareness, texture and colour, but you need to study and understand the natural environment that you are working within. My garden in Scotland is my pride and joy as its also full of wildlife and looks beautiful during the seasonal changes.

What is it you do outside of work that you feel most proud of?

Encouraging my children to be independent thinkers and to follow their creative passions.

A Ted Talk given by Ken Robinson several years ago entitled How our schools are killing creativity really resonated with my own view of the current UK education curriculum and reinforced my resolve to encourage my children in their creative interests and passions whatever they might be. We need people with all kinds of diverse skills and you are more likely to apply yourself and succeed if you pursue something you are passionate about.

Are you involved/have you been involved in any innovative/future ready work?

During September 2018, I set myself a new challenge and started a part-time MSc course in Construction Project Management at Heriot Watt Dubai Campus. My coursework for this semester is an assignment on advanced building technology and the impact that artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the building design process and specifically architectural design and how AI will impact the role of an architect. BIM (building information modelling) has been the game changer of the last decade and AI is the next frontier. As AI and machine learning processes are based on data then data collection, storage and sharing is the next big challenge for the building design and construction industry.

When I was at university AutoCAD was in its infancy and in the last decade BIM has fundamentally changed the engineering and construction industry. As advancements in digital technology continue to accelerate the challenge will be for engineering businesses to adapt quickly enough.

What can you say about gender diversity? In the industry?

Gender balance, diversity and equality should be a key area of focus for all businesses. Unfortunately, the engineering and construction industry has traditionally been slow to address these issues but recent studies have highlighted the benefits to business of a diverse and balanced workforce and we are slowly seeing businesses in the E&C sector take these findings on board. With the publication of our Gender Balance Report and #BalanceforBetter campaign WSP is leading the way and setting an industry standard for engineering consultancy in the region and I’m pleased to be able to support these initiatives.