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A-Z of how to make a difference

Paul Steen's can-do attitude pushed him to the top of the industry's young achievers

Being an “awful” footballer did not put Paul Steen off arranging his firm’s annual soccer tournament.

This can-do approach led him to win the top prize at this year’s G4C New Generation Awards, organised by CN, which recognise outstanding young achievers working in the built environment sector.

An associate at European engineering consultants Ramboll Whitbybird, Mr Steen recently moved to -Edinburgh to set up a regional business. He is also leading the team on the design of a library in -Sierra Leone.

Where others move around after two or three years in the job, the 30-year-old has stayed with his company since graduating from Cambridge in 2000.

Arranging the football tournament meant he built strong relationships early on within the firm.

“I was easily the worst player on the team,” he says. “The guy who used to run it left and I got landed with it.

“But I ran with it and it’s spiralled out of proportion and now it’s too big for the venue.

“Setting up something like that meant I got to know everyone in the organisation and it was fantastic to do.”

Praise for the client

Mr Steen’s first large project was supervising the design of a deep basement at BBC Broadcasting House in Langham Place, London, which went within 5 m of the Victoria line.

He praises the client for being candid on a project which would be under public scrutiny.

“It was a very open culture. I remember going to one meeting and it was going down the blame game route but the client immediately picked up on that and said they wanted it to be open, and that’s the way it has worked,” he says.

He credits his company for the chance to have this responsibility. “I was given a fairly free rein and a fair amount of autonomy, while having the safety net of people with a good checking system in place,” he says.

Mark Whitby, chairman of Ramboll Whitbybird, says: “Young people are not necessarily so effective with older ones around. If you give them the space they have to initiate of their own accord. Paul’s one of those people who is completely self-starting. He’s a doer, he really gets things done.”

Mr Steen enjoys networking outside the office too, but never wants to be pushy to get work.

“I don’t want to go about spouting that I’m this great expert. I like to have met people and put the thought in their mind that they might want to work with me one day. I see it as a very long, slow process rather than quick wins,” he says.

Always more to do

Through his work leading the design of a library in Sierra Leone he feels strongly that developed countries should do more to help developing nations, especially because of the history of slavery.

“There’s always more to do. Slavery was the root cause of our opportunity to build an empire and build the cities around the UK that grew on the back of it. There is an awful lot that we should give back,” he says.

What aspects of the industry doesn’t he like?

“I think it’s a shame that for public sector work it’s such a complicated process to go through. It would be nice if things were slightly more standardised. The whole procurement process is drawn out and slow and it’s potentially not productive work if you don’t get that tender.”

He also thinks engineers should get better at talking about their expertise to the wider public.

“There’s nothing wrong with engineers being pushed in front of cameras. It’s important to have people who can speak with authority about what is important to the nation,” he says.

As for the future, he wants to grow his team to about 25 people in the next five years and then work in a developing country. And he sees himself staying at Ramboll Whitbybird.

“I sometimes wonder whether I should get experience elsewhere to learn about how other companies work, but you can hear that from other people in the industry,” he says.

And with a baby on the way too, it seems he will be very busy both on and off the pitch.


Paul Steen led the design team for the largest library in Sierra Leone.

Claire Curtis-Thomas, MP for Crosby, invited Ramboll Whitbybird to design the Equiano Centre library in Waterloo, Sierra Leone, after she visited the war-torn area in 2003.

Ramboll Whitbybird has given the project £100,000 and a further £1 million is on its way from a private donor.

The firm hired architect Willson & Bell in the UK and Mackenzie Studd in Sierra Leone as the QS. Mr Steen emphasises that it is a team effort and scoots around the firm’s London office to introduce three of his colleagues.

He discusses the importance of listening to local people. “It shouldn’t be about dropping aid into the country. It’s got to be done right. It’s the way the charity sector works, you must consult with people and then they help you to deliver it.”

But he admits that things aren’t always ideal.

“There are a lot of lessons to learn in Africa. I wonder whether we’ve always made the right decisions. We need to be careful about telling the story and it’s got to be done right,” he says, adding that it is not always possible to use local firms, which may not be able to tackle a building of this size.

Nine further, smaller libraries are planned and it is hoped that local architects and engineers will be able to build them.

The project is likely to start on site in March, depending on the rainy season, and should be open by the end of 2009.