UCL Research Domains


Together We Create - Episode 4

Collaborating to ensure buildings and cities are relevant to local communities

In this episode, we are joined by Dr Alejandra Albuerne. Alejandra is an architectural engineer who has worked in Spain and the UK. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:04

Hello and welcome to Together We Create a podcast about collaborative social research. My name is Lili Golmohammadi, I'm a collaborative researcher working across design technology and social research and a final year PhD student at UCL. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:20

In each episode, I will be talking to an early career researcher at UCL to find out more about how and why social researchers collaborate with engineers, scientists, health practitioners and designers, and hearing about their research stories and top tips as we discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a multidisciplinary approach. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:42

In this episode, I'm joined by architectural engineer and construction historian Dr. Alejandra Albuerne. In 2016, she completed her PhD in engineering science and archaeology at Oxford University, and she joined UCL in 2017 as a lecturer in sustainable heritage at the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources. Before this, Alejandra worked for nine years in structural engineering and architectural firms in both the UK and Spain. Her work combines engineering skills and knowledge with cultural and social studies to address the complex challenges of conserving heritage and supporting recovery after disasters. 


Lili Golmohammadi  01:18

Alejandra, can you tell us a little about what shaped this path? What were some of the interests and events that led you here?


Alejandra Albuerne  01:24

Certainly, I think it all starts, in my childhood, when I grew interested in... really in villages and traditional houses, I was always fascinated when traveling around with my family and I grew up between the UK and Spain. And I was always, whenever we went to the UK, I was fascinated by the well-kept the villages, which you didn't as often find in Spain back then. And I don't know I guess that stayed with me. My father was an antiques restorer, and the idea of restoration was always, I suppose in the back of my mind. And as I grew up and then I became an engineer and I thought, okay, what can I do with all of these interests of mine and on the one hand, there was this interest in traditional construction, in historic buildings and then on the other, there was a very strong feel towards helping people, towards making people's lives a bit more comfortable, a bit safer, and overall a little better. And I thought, how can this all be combined, and through different jobs and different experiences, I ended up working in disaster relief, a link in that, with my understanding and my engineering knowledge about traditional construction, and it led me to working on heritage and heritage is this beautiful field that combines some tangible assets, but they can't go by themselves, there's always, you know, they mean nothing if people are not behind them, if people don't care for them if people don't enjoy them. And in some cases, it is a landmark in a community and in some cases it's somebody's home, somebody's profession, somebody's pastime, and it all eventually came together.


Lili Golmohammadi  03:26

And that's called intangible heritage, is that what you were describing there with the things that aren't kind of concrete buildings, things that are like cultural practices, music?


Alejandra Albuerne  03:35

Yeah, so we use the term intangible heritage versus tangible heritage. But the way we think about heritage nowadays, it's very difficult to dissociate one from the other. So, for every for every tangible element of manifestation of heritage, there is a lot of intangible manifestations and practices around. So, for example, if you think about a historic building, all of the intangible elements that would come with it, there's actually many that can go from the actual construction practices. So how we work with traditional materials or even you know, our understanding of how to source wood in a community, or how to work and how to cure it. The decision about any decorative features that you built onto your building, all the way to the way we use it.


Theme music  04:26


Lili Golmohammadi  04:34

Early on, I think you all say you've volunteered for an organisation called Engineers Without Borders. So, can you tell us a bit about what they do and how being involved got you into the more social and local aspects of architectural engineering?


Alejandra Albuerne  04:47

The key goal of the organization was to bring engineering skills to solve problems that you wouldn't necessarily address in commercial engineering but that needed attention. And they ran internships, placements, international placements for students back then at my university, and I applied to do one, and it was a wonderful, it was a wonderful experience, it was very eye opening. As somebody very wise who was back then at Engineers Without Borders and is now a professor at UCL told me, you know, a three-month placement wasn't necessarily going to change the world, obviously. But it was going to help me understand how my practice could help in this context in the long run and help understand that when I go to a different context, I bring in my perceptions, which are an outsider's perceptions, I bring in a whole lot of ideas, some of which are applicable, and some of which are not. And he really encouraged me to keep my eyes open to think about how prejudices were present and to try to step outside from from my preconceptions, and work together with the locals with those who knew the problems, who would those who knew the context and who knew with the kind of, you know, directions that they were looking for, so that we could work together to find to find ways forward, to find answers to some of the problems that they had.


Lili Golmohammadi  06:37

And I think that's really informed the work that you do today. So, I know you're working on several really interesting research projects at the moment, but let's start with your work on North African cities, what's the focus and aim of this project?


Alejandra Albuerne  06:51

So, this project originates, really, from conversations with partners with collaborators that we have, in some of the cities in particular in the city of Tunis. Tunis, it has an ancient Medina, an old Medina, which is a well heritage site. And for a few years, I've been collaborating with groups of professionals and heritage organisations back there. And from a previous project, we identified a number of issues. And one of them was the issue of creating opportunities that both allowed the regeneration of, you know, some of the physical buildings, some of the physical areas of the Medina while at the same time serving the locals, and thinking about opportunities for local financial development, social development, cultural development, and thinking it's a very complex field in a way, because you have to combine both conservation of buildings with urban development, with economic development. And there's lots of it, it ended up being a very multidisciplinary project and we're working with a wide range of researchers and partners.


Lili Golmohammadi  08:11

And so, what kind of collaborators and methods were involved in that?


Alejandra Albuerne  08:16

So, it's, it's ranged from surveying techniques to record and monitor physical damage in historic buildings that have experienced decay over the past decades, all the way to economics methods. So, trying to understand what the economic development of the area has looked like, in the in the last few years, what trends are being followed? What gaps can be identified? and then anything in between. [laughs]


Lili Golmohammadi  08:49

So yeah, so there's so much work going on, and all these different specialisms are coming together to conserve this heritage site, but also keep it relevant and keep it useful. So, what insights does working collaboratively offer the say the engineering aspects of the project?


Alejandra Albuerne  09:06

Well, actually, in this present time with with COVID, if we hadn't worked collaboratively, we wouldn't have been able to do any of the work we've done. So, for example, for the surveying of historic buildings, we've had to work to develop remote collaboration strategies. So, we held some of the technological knowledge at UCL and we trained professionals in Tunisia remotely online, to use some of the technology to do the data collection for us. So, collaboration has meant a lot from a practical perspective in the current time, but also from a knowledge development perspective. You know, our partners in Tunisia are the ones who are experts on the buildings we're looking at, on their history on the construction methods on the construction practices. So, we've been learning from each other, it's been... the collaboration has been very rich, and very fun. It's been a I would like to think it's been a good learning experience both ways. But certainly, for UCL, it's been a really nice learning experience.


Lili Golmohammadi  10:22

That's so great and it's lovely to hear that you've managed to make the difficulties of working remotely work and turn it into a positive experience as well. So, I'm going to bring your other area of specialism into the conversation now. So that's your work on post disaster construction. You currently lead on a project called Mobilising Heritage for Recovery and Resilience, which has partners from Nepal, Turkey, Tunisia, Philippines and Iran. After disasters, like earthquakes or floods, I expect it's a main priority to get the resources in place as quickly as possible and ensure the buildings are structurally safe. But can you give an example of when and why the social still matters for architectural engineering in these post disaster contexts?


Alejandra Albuerne  11:07

Well, the social is quite crucial, in my opinion for prioritising and strategising a big range of interventions. So even from deciding the type and the place and the size of housing that a government or an international organisation is going to invest in to rehouse communities that have lost their house, also the way to investing or recovering public spaces or public buildings, recovery should be people centered, in my opinion, because recovery is for the people. So, if you bring their culture into this, and you bring their needs, as they feel them as they express them is how you can make the most efficient type of and most effective type of recovery.


Theme music  12:01


Lili Golmohammadi  12:09

So, you're interested in the use of traditional methods and materials in all your projects, can you tell us a little about what these traditional methods and materials are, and why they matter?


Alejandra Albuerne  12:21

So, in many local context, traditional construction methods and materials really tend to refer to the materials that are available and the technology that has been implemented in the place and has been used to build with over time. So, for example, in Nepal, Nepal, experienced a very large earthquake in 2015 and around a million dwellings were damaged and needed to be rebuilt. And Nepal is a very complex territory with some areas that receive international trade. And they, for example, in the Kathmandu Valley, you can find modern construction materials like cement and steel, but the further you go from the valley, and the higher you go up the hills, access to these materials becomes a lot harder. So, after the earthquakes, a lot of the reconstruction needed to happen using local materials, because anything else was too expensive, and and not accessible for these communities. So, thinking about how to build with stone and timber in a way that ensured seismic safety, or that gave the residents the confidence that if another earthquake came, their house wouldn't fall on their head, they wouldn't cause personal harm. And of course, that's very much an engineering question. Defining safety, it's a very challenging, it's a very challenging question in engineering.


Lili Golmohammadi  14:06

Wow. It does sound like a lot of responsibility [laughs] A huge responsibility, especially when you're dealing with those numbers of dwellings and advising on that scale.


Alejandra Albuerne  14:17

And there's also a degree of unpredictability when it comes to earthquakes. They are never two earthquakes the same. And we're able to, we're able to understand which seismic folds are accumulating energy that they're going to need to release in the next decades, but we have no idea on exactly how or where they're going to release that energy. So, the same the same intensity of shaking, whether it happens at ground level, or whether it happens at a few kilometers underground, will change the way that buildings respond to the earthquake. So, it is a tricky it is tricky field.


Theme music  15:03


Lili Golmohammadi  15:07

So, in this podcast series, we're exploring different ways of doing collaborative social research. And so I want to ask you now a bit more about how your research actually works in terms of collaboration and the methods and things like that. So, can you describe how you bring ideas and methods from architectural engineering and cultural and social studies together in your research?


Alejandra Albuerne  15:28

There can be different ways of doing that. The one element that always seems to be present in my project is the need for dialogue with the local with a local group. So be that local communities, the local professionals, the local practitioners, sometimes all of them, so that dialogue normally uses social sciences methods. And I, I always tend to collaborate with colleagues who, who primarily work with those methods. So, over the years, I've, you know, gained a bit of understanding, but it's always wonderful to work with colleagues who use those methods of primary research methods, because then, you know, you know that there's rigor in the way that they're going to be applied.


Lili Golmohammadi  16:19

So, what kind of methods like are you talking about interviews, participant observation, things like that?


Alejandra Albuerne  16:27

Sometimes it's that but increasingly, we're looking for more diverse ways, and more relaxed ways in a way to communicate with participants in the research, in the project that we've been doing in North Africa, a lot of the social methods have revolved around storytelling. So, a questionnaire, if you just go up to someone with short 10 questions, you're asking them to be part of a fairly rigid type of data collection, and they may just, you know, go for the short answers. They may not be 100% sure, what kind of, you know, do they want to hear me explain something? Or do they just want my yes or no? If you sit down with someone, and you start asking them, you know, tell me, tell me your story. Tell me why you live here. Tell me where you spend your evenings in this neighborhood? Where do you go to interact with your friends...? If you give them an opportunity to tell their story, you can find out a lot more. [laughs]


Lili Golmohammadi  17:41

On the flip side of that, sort of have you experienced any challenges or tensions working across engineering and social research methods? And how have you managed these?


Alejandra Albuerne  17:51

Well, there are always tensions in interdisciplinary and cross disciplinary research, because you need to organise the resources in a project and place them in one area or another. So, there's always that tension of getting the balance, right? And getting working where you need to be with the resources that that you have. What's necessary to have a successful cross-disciplinary project, to have a team that is ready to work together that is ready to listen to each other and you work with people who don't necessarily think that their discipline is the one that has to lead.


Lili Golmohammadi  18:28

Right. Yeah. So, I want to back to your heritage cities project which is called Activating Abandoned Heritage. So, what are the social challenges and risks that that project has encountered?


Alejandra Albuerne  18:42

The context in which we've been working is a context that over the past years, maybe maybe just over a decade, it has experienced a lot of change in terms of the uses of the of the historic neighborhood with international tourism growing really quite fast. And a lot of the historic houses being restored, just to be turned to into either hotels or restaurants for visitors rather than for the local people. And on conversations with local residents and local actors, we started identifying this big interest that really came from them on creating opportunities that are for them, that it's not turned into... that the Medina is not turned into a touristic attraction only. They see the value in having international visitors and bringing some income in that way. But there is an interest in preserving the the life of the Medina and keeping its residents living there and keeping it a lively place where you know the local residents may be the ones who also have some businesses that served, some of them will serve visitors, but that generally respond to the needs of local communities.


Theme music  20:05


Lili Golmohammadi  20:12

So, I'm hoping that you can offer some advice, I'm sure you can offer some advice for social researchers who want to collaborate with engineers or vice versa. What are the qualities and skills that have helped you to move between the different research perspectives that are central to your operations?


Alejandra Albuerne  20:30

I think one of the one of the key things has been having this interest in people that I mentioned at the start, but I think that interest is is probably something that I have in common with all of those other engineers and scientists that are working across fields like I am.


Lili Golmohammadi  20:47

Can you give an example?


Alejandra Albuerne  20:48

So, for example, doing calculations about the safety of a building, the size of foundations that you need to you need to build. Like, okay, you made the dimension the structure of a building very accurately, but if it cannot be properly built, properly constructed, then what are your ways of ensuring that your building is going to function, and for me that always felt a bit abstract. If I am supporting an architecture team working in Ghana, maybe I'm going to deliver to them a very complete set of engineering drawings that are going to be really challenging to to build in real life. So being exposed to methods that help you understand the social reality, the social context of a place made me think about a lot of things and made me make a lot of connections between engineering design and engineering practice: the actual construction that could be delivered.


Lili Golmohammadi  21:57

Yeah. Oh, great. Fantastic. Thank you so much Alejandra, it's been a real pleasure to talk to you and find out all about your work.


Alejandra Albuerne  22:03

Thank you very much Lily.


Lili Golmohammadi  22:08

You've been listening to Together We Create. This episode was presented by myself Lili Golmohammadi and edited by Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Alejandra Albuerne. If you want to find out more about her research or the podcast series, please follow the links in the description. This podcast is brought to you by the UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain