Michelle McDowell, MBE

Doctor of Engineering Michelle McDowell

Monday 16 July 2012 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Sally Heslop

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

In 1980 it was still unusual for a young woman in this country to choose engineering as her career.   Michelle McDowell grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s and attended an all-girls grammar school in Coleraine where, typically for the time, engineering was not on the agenda - in fact, she found out about the profession by chance.  Her father, a science teacher, came home with a leaflet from the Construction Industry Training Board advertising their “Insight” summer school for girls studying A-level maths and science.  Michelle attended the course in the summer of 1980 and everything fell into place for her – she realised that civil engineering was where she wanted to apply her maths and science, not medicine or teaching or any of the other more conventional options on offer.  She returned home feeling totally inspired and wholly determined to make engineering her career.  That characteristic determination was to stand her in good stead.

Michelle chose to study civil engineering at Bristol, attracted (like so many of our graduates here today) by a combination of the course, the academic reputation of the University and the city centre location.  While living in Clifton Hill House she met her partner Jason, then a fellow student studying English.  They are still together more than 30 years later and we welcome Jason here today. 

Michelle graduated in 1984 with a BSc and the skills she needed to begin her career as a structural engineer.  Her first job was with WS Atkins, at their headquarters in Epsom, Surrey.  Atkins in the 1980s was a much smaller firm than it is today, and the offices in Epsom provided a friendly and supportive environment in which young engineers could learn and develop as professionals.  There were good opportunities to travel overseas, and here Michelle learnt how to design structures and worked on a variety of projects including a housing development in Oman and a major exhibition hall in Macau.   After four years she was seconded to John Laing Construction, where she worked as site engineer for 18 months on the new headquarters building for Confederation Life in Stevenage.  She saw the building rise from the piles through the concrete frame to the steel glazed atria and acquired invaluable knowledge not only about how buildings fit together in practice but also how a good designer can minimise risk and improve the way in which the building can be constructed.

In 1989, Michelle moved to Whitby Bird in London, a rapidly-growing company with a reputation for innovation and a place where engineers and architects worked closely together.  Over the next 8 years, Michelle developed her skills in innovative structural design, leading on some notable projects including two in Berlin - the new Stock Exchange and the new British Embassy.  In the Stock Exchange, the entire 9-storey superstructure is suspended from concrete arches, creating a huge column free space at ground floor level.  The cast steel shoes forming the pinned bases of the arches are a major feature of this ground floor space.  The British Embassy incorporated special security and bomb blast design and an innovative winter garden.  Using her recently acquired German, Michelle worked with the local German engineers to achieve the approved design which was required before construction could begin.

By the time Michelle left Whitby Bird in 1997, she was an associate partner in charge of a team of engineers and her approach to the design of buildings was firmly established: she was convinced that engineers and architects thinking and working together right from the start of a project produce a better design. 

Michelle joined BDP (originally the Building Design Partnership) in 1997 as an Associate Director, attracted by the firm’s interdisciplinary approach which brings together engineers, architects, planners and designers into integrated teams.  She rose quickly to Board level in 2003 and was elected head of the company’s Civil and Structural Engineering group in 2004, with responsibility for the quality of the engineering design of all projects in the group. 

Michelle has led many high-profile and award-winning projects during her time at BDP, including the major refurbishment of the Royal Albert Hall which was completed in 2003 and was the first comprehensive overhaul of this unique concert hall since it opened in 1871.  The work involved the construction of a 4-storey basement adjacent to the Hall and over 30 refurbishment projects inside the building.  The Hall remained open throughout the work and the project won a European Union prize for cultural heritage (the Europa Nostra Award).  The citation reads:  “ .. a remarkable achievement of restoring and enhancing an international concert hall whilst still in use and for the ingenious provision of service requirements, thereby releasing space for the public’s enjoyment.”

The architect, structural engineer and environmental engineer worked collaboratively to develop an innovative design for new, slender mezzanine floors.  These floors integrate a steel structure, the building services and a raised floor support system and are suspended from existing columns to create a hub space which then links public, production, studio and office uses.  This project won all three categories (regional, national and Best of the Best) of the British Council for Offices Awards in 2005.  “The Mailbox’s base space was far from usual and the BBC made a courageous stand to go for this mixed use wonder.  BDP’s success can be measured against the challenge they faced from Mailbox’s… sorting office ancestry. The standard of fit-out is very high; all elements display imagination.  ... The building is full of dynamism and light.”

Michelle’s portfolio also includes the new HQ building for the international pharmaceutical company Roche,  which provided capital cost efficiencies by shortening the construction time and making coordination with building services  and the architectural components very easy.  The client saved so much money that they were able to build an additional pharmacology building on the site without going over the budget.  This project won the British Council of Offices “Best of the Best” award in 2006, making BDP the first practice to win the top award two years in a row. The citation reads:

“Roche asked for quality without ostentation to attract and hold the best staff and this is what designer BDP has delivered.“  

Michelle has always tried to ensure that social and environmental responsibility lie at the heart of her work as a designer.  It is very important to her to understand other people’s viewpoints, and to value and give credit for other people’s inputs.  She has travelled extensively in her career, staying in many different places (including a tribal hut in Borneo!) and has developed a capacity to listen to people and see many different perspectives.  She brings that variety of perspectives to her design, and her passion is designing sustainable buildings that meet people’s needs.  I think that is exemplified in her work on the Children’s Hospital in Brighton (which won the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award in 2008) and on the City Academy programme which brought four new schools to deprived areas.  These four Academies all display her characteristic use of an inspiring, welcoming, central open space, leading to teaching accommodation arranged around that hub.

Thanks to Michelle’s work in championing engineering as a career for all, there is a BDP-funded scheme at New Hall, Cambridge, which provides bursaries for female engineering students.  

In 2010, Michelle served on the Government Innovation & Growth Team, reporting on measures to achieve Low Carbon Construction.  She was also elected as the first female Chair of the Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE), won the property category of the First Women Awards (which were created in 2004 to recognise pioneering women whose achievements open opportunities for others), and was awarded an MBE for services to the construction industry.  In 2011, Michelle was named as the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year (a prestigious award which celebrates entrepreneurs and business women from a wide range of industries) and was also elected to Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, an honour extended only to the UK’s most distinguished engineers who have made an outstanding contribution to the profession.  She ended an exceptional year with the birth of her first child, Joe.

Two months ago, Michelle was named as the ACE “Engineering Ambassador for 2012” – a special award to celebrate an individual who has made a significant contribution to raising the profile of consultancy and engineering. 

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Michelle McDowell as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa.


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