Nightingale lights the way for female engineers - Shirley Evatt

Two centuries ago few women were deemed to have a great influence on society. One who did was Florence Nightingale. Her Notes on Hospitals revolutionised the theory of hospital management and construction. It was her pavilion approach to design that influenced architect David Bryce in 1872 when he was asked to design a new Royal Infirmary for Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh Futures Institute takes shape, photo by Keith Hunter

Almost 150 years later, the building is undergoing significant changes as it transitions from a former hospital to become the new home for the University of Edinburgh’s Edinburgh Futures Institute.

Working as part of a multi-disciplinary team I too have a role to play in influencing changes to the historic building.

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As the lead engineer on the project, I have been involved from the beginning in 2015 where the early phase of enabling works saw the building stripped back to its shell and redundant buildings demolished. Given the age, layout, and structure of the building, working on this project has been incredibly challenging and hugely exciting at the same time.

Shirley Evatt is a Senior Associate at Will Rudd Davidson

Enormous engineering challenges have presented in preserving the old stone buildings whilst creating open-plan spaces that can be used flexibly for education and teaching.

Creating openings in the old walls had to be carefully executed, as did the introduction of new stairs and lifts throughout to allow for changes in levels to improve accessibility. The new building will provide a highly connected range of diverse accommodations for teaching, working, meeting, and socialising in the new event spaces and a public piazza.

When complete, the new Edinburgh Futures Institute will bring together students, academics, researchers, organisations and communities to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

The building itself is complex and has presented significant challenges over the past six years for the multi-disciplinary team. It is fitting then that the new unique state-of-the-art building will support collaboration and co-creation of solutions that are challenge-led.

Edinburgh Futures Institute - Bennetts Associates

Two centuries ago when Nightingale first published her thoughts on hospital construction, it would have been inconceivable that a woman would be responsible for the structure of a building. Thankfully for me, times have changed, but sadly they are not changing quickly enough and we need to challenge this.

As an engineering student, I was one of only six females in a group of 55 students. Two decades on and the latest figures show that women account for only 10% of engineering professionals. A figure that has remained static for several years and one of the lowest in Europe, where some lead with nearly 30 per cent.

If we are to reduce the gender gap, we need to inspire girls to study engineering and give them a real insight into where it could take them. We need more positive role models, like the managing director of Will Rudd Edinburgh, a female who has risen to the top. We also need to challenge the traditional perceptions of engineering. Yes, I’m often in the minority on-site, but attitudes are more inclusive, open, and diverse. I love my job and the variety of opportunities I enjoy at Will Rudd, working on incredible projects like the new Edinburgh Futures Institute. I relish the challenges that buildings, old and new, present, working to find solutions to realise ambitious visions.

The restoration of the old Royal Infirmary will be a space fit for generations to come, ensuring it lives up to the motto inscribed in stone on the building’s wall “Patet Omnibus”, meaning “Open to All”. Perhaps this too could become a motto for the engineering world.

Shirley Evatt is a Senior Associate at Will Rudd Davidson.


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