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Claire Smith BSc MSt CEng MICE FIStructE: oration

Read Professor Tim Ibell's's oration on Claire Smith for the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering in July 2023.


Claire Smith
Claire Smith

Vice-Chancellor, Claire Smith is an engineering leader. She is the Director of the Bath Office of Buro Happold, one of the world’s most famous, innovative and forward-thinking engineering consultancies. The University’s links with Buro Happold go back to its creation here in Bath in 1976 when Ted Happold left the famous Ove Arup engineering consultancy to both found Buro Happold and to become Head of the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering here at the University.

In the modern context, Claire represents that original pioneering spirit, with generosity of leadership and exceptional technical talent richly on display. Her first-class honours degree from Bath in Building Engineering turns out to have just been the start of her success. If you’ve ever taken the cable car or visited the transformed Olympic Stadium, both in London, then you’ve experienced the structural design leadership of Claire.

Technically even more challenging, but probably a little less known, Claire worked on the design of the award-winning pre-stressed stone Queen’s Building at Emmanuel College in Cambridge – this building is truly ground-breaking in all sorts of ways, and allowed Claire’s innovative use of materials to be expanded.

This pallet of opportunity for structural engineering innovation marks Claire out. Sustainability, regeneration and appropriate use of materials are hallmarks of great structural engineering in this era. Claire lives and leads this commitment. Engineering is about people. Full stop. Yes, there is technical stuff, of course, but first and foremost engineers require empathy, bravery to change client’s minds, and vision for something better. This is Claire!

Claire has recently co-authored a book for the structural engineering profession titled ‘Design for Zero’, which provides the route map for structural engineers to achieve net-zero embodied-carbon structural forms. Claire is already leading on the next phase beyond net zero, namely regeneration, which personally I define as ‘doing good’, rather than merely ‘doing less harm’ to our struggling planet. Indeed, Claire has developed a South-West ‘conservation and sustainability’ project portfolio, breathing new life into derelict sites and old buildings. Great examples are Bath Quays South, Lakeshore Bristol and Bristol Temple Quarter – vast-scale regeneration in action at its very best. In addition, Claire leads the BANES Future Ambition Board’s Climate and Nature Theme Group, which brings together private and public partners to tackle our challenges associated with the Climate Emergency.

So, how did Claire end up being a leader in sustainable engineering design? Great careers advice at school led to Claire investigating engineering as a degree, with total support from her parents and a family friend, Gordon Harris, who is still a friend and mentor all these years on. Everyone needs such support and knowing how fortunate she was to receive such support, Claire gives back in so many ways now. For over a decade, Claire has contributed extensively to the Industrial Liaison Committee for our Civil Engineering degree programmes, offering advice and wisdom, particularly during the extensive deliberations concerning Curriculum Transformation. This generous offering of time and expertise extends to her support and leadership in our Buro-Happold-sponsored flagship joint final-year design project between architects and civil engineers, known as the ‘Ted’ project.

At some stages in Claire’s progression to becoming a Partner, she experienced the ‘hanging in there’ journey as part of her juggling of family and professional life, with limitations on role models to whom she could seek inspiration.

A once male-dominated Buro Happold supported Claire as a trail blazer in all sorts of new ways of working, greatly to their credit, and this culture is now firmly embedded within the now-diverse firm. Inadvertently to some extent, but so powerfully, Claire’s journey has helped other women in structural engineering to succeed through the ‘hanging in years’ or, better still, to circumvent any ‘hanging in’. Claire has become that role model for so many, and this will be just one of her many enduring legacies.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Claire Smith, who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa.

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