Working as a Technical Director at AWA: An interview with Ben Whitfield

Working as a Technical Director at AWA: An interview with Ben Whitfield

Putting in the groundwork to set up a new office in Bath, we speak to AWA Technical Director Ben Whitfield about his career journey and current projects. Ben graduated from the University of Bath in 2008 and has been working for AWA for almost two years.

Working remotely until the new office is up and running, Ben explained, “My role was created so that I could launch a new hub for AWA in a different part of the country.

“I think we will broadly work on the same types of projects that our current office delivers, though my own experience will no doubt shape where we go with it.”

A typical day for Ben starts with talking to the team about the progress of projects. Then he will often carry out some design work, have meetings with clients or architects or visit sites to check up on the progress of a build.

He said, “It’s a really varied role which is fantastic. I could be putting together quotes or dealing with deadlines externally or internally.

“Quoting for work is something that can be really different depending on the project. When you’re giving a quote you have to understand what the client wants from you, and that can change.”

“Sometimes a client might want us to size a few elements, and they are happy for their builder to use their experience to construct it on site, whilst other times we will be working with an architect to design and detail all of the primary structure prior to the contractor being appointed, due to the size or complexity of the project. In this way, we tailor our service to provide best value for our clients.”

An element of the role that Ben particularly enjoys is supporting his team of three. He said, “Helping my team is something I enjoy about my role. I get a real sense of well being and satisfaction from it.”

“In terms of employee development, most people do have a path they want to follow to succeed in their career. In engineering most graduates know the next thing that they can do is to get chartered, so it’s something they will aim for. It’s fantastic to be able to support them through that process.

“It usually takes upwards of four years to get chartered, and can be a challenging process. It was more like eight years for me (having young children being the biggest reason!) but was such a huge achievement when I did finally get there!”

Ben explained that his undergraduate course was combined with two placements as well as his masters.

“My whole training was essentially my degree – by the final year I felt like I had already been working! My degree was so vocational, training me specifically for being an engineer. By the final year I had already worked in three different companies and knew what to expect in a design office.”

“The company where I had my placement took me on after I graduated, so although the course was long, coming out with a masters and a job was great. I worked there for 15 years and became chartered.”

Growing up playing with Lego and enjoying subjects like maths and design technology were early indicators of Ben’s career path, although he described choosing structural engineering as ‘a gradual process’, with the final decision made at the time of choosing university courses.

He describes himself as having a lot of traits which are common in structural engineers. Ben said, “I’m analytical, creative and would describe myself as carrying a big sense of responsibility for things.”

“Being analytical is important; to be able to assess the requirements of a project and try to make things work. The creative aspect, some people might see that in terms of art or poetry, but actually being creative in your approach to solving a problem is really important to the role. Then having a sense of personal responsibility, that’s not so unique to engineering, but having a sense of responsibility for a project means you’re dedicated to making it succeed.”

His favourite project at AWA has been a specialist one, fitting an art installation at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Somerset.

He explained, “The installation is a swing that members of the public can use. It is hanging from one of the existing roof trusses.”

“We were approached to assess the trusses and design the connection of the swing to them. I had to look into what forces are applied to an object when it’s swinging, which isn’t something I had done before!”

“In general, the loads we design structures for are laid out in British Standards, so that engineers can all design for appropriate loading when considering a house or an office, for example.”

“But for something such this swing, it’s up to the engineer to judge what the design requirement should be, and agree those with the client. It’s about providing a safe design without over-engineering it. Based on the size of the swing, I allowed for the weight of two rugby players to be sat on it at the same time and planned for it to swing quite significantly, as you would in a school playground. That was a real worst-case scenario, and in reality the load is likely to be a lot less than that.”

AWA covers a variety of different sectors, which means staff can get a range of experience on projects.

Ben said, “Projects range from niche things like working on a sculpture, house extensions up to larger commercial and residential developments, through to conservation work on listed buildings.

“The team is great too and will always give you the support you need. They’re definitely focused on helping staff in their career progression.

“If you are interested in a career in structural engineering and working at AWA in our offices in Romsey or Bath, get in touch with me at”

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