With over 15 years of extensive experience of designing and leading institutional, industrial, residential and prestigious infrastructural projects across the country, Sneha Gurjar is an architect of excellent professional aptitude. As a director at CEM Engineers, one of India’s leading comprehensive consultancy for master planning, architectural design, engineering and project management services, she has been instrumental in steering the growth trajectory of the firm over the past decade. In an exclusive conversation with Architecture+Design, she opens up about women being at the helm of India’s AEC Giants:
What are some challenges with designing Critical infrastructure, and how do you future-proof these projects to accommodate potential needs?
Critical infrastructure project requirements are peculiar in nature, leading to multiple challenges before and during the project. Most critical projects must be resilient to withstand natural disasters, cyberattacks, and other threats. It requires redundancy in systems to ensure continuous operation even if one component fails. They also require adaptive technological integration as well as robust safety against physical and cyber threats such as terrorist attacks, unauthorised access, and cyber breaches.
These intense and large-scale infrastructure projects can be very expensive, and apart from balancing cost-effectiveness with the need for high-quality materials and construction methods, these projects must be designed for a long lifespan. Designers must anticipate future needs and technological advancements to avoid premature obsolescence. Modern critical infrastructure must also be designed with an eye towards sustainability, including energy efficiency, waste reduction, and eco-friendly materials.
Addressing these challenges requires a multidisciplinary approach involving engineers, architects, urban planners, cybersecurity experts, environmental scientists, and policymakers. Additionally, robust risk assessment and contingency planning are essential elements of the design process. Ensuring seamless communication and cooperation between different components of the critical infrastructure system is vital for its effective functioning. By incorporating advanced technology, integrated design and engineering consultation practices seek to increase profitability, streamline processes, reduce project risks, and increase design coordination efficiency.
What leadership skills are crucial for managing diverse and complex projects like communication infrastructure, tunnelling, and institutional design, and how do you effectively motivate multidisciplinary teams to achieve successful project outcomes?
Complex construction projects are unique and driven by several factors impacted by project cost, project schedules and quality. To streamline the various industrial processes, projects must be executed with an aligned vision of thought that combines social and sustainable consciousness with robust designs and cutting-edge building technologies. Such projects require a unique set of leadership and skills due to the intricate nature of such endeavours, such as having a strategic vision and understanding the long-term goals and potential challenges to mitigate risks, conflicts and challenges. A solid understanding of the technical aspects of the infrastructure is crucial for informed decision-making and effective communication with experts and stakeholders. Leaders and project managers need to be innovative and adept at finding creative solutions to unexpected challenges that may arise during the project.
Executing some of the most complex and large-scale infrastructure developments in the country, we operate with a diverse team of architects, engineers, project managers, scientists and subject experts who work on highly technical and advanced aspects of construction. Imbibing a practice that combines social and sustainable consciousness with robust designs and cutting-edge building technologies, our team continuously aspires to be one of the most influential practices in India and bring that passion into their work.
How have digitisation and technological innovations significantly changed the infrastructure and AEC industry?
The construction industry has traditionally been passive in adopting newer technologies. Disruptive technologies are shaping the future and solving longstanding problems through a different lens. Emerging technologies can be utilised to cater to the specific challenges faced in the construction industry. This also allows for more creativity and innovation in architecture.
The technology and tools available today also aid in deliberate decision-making through understanding long-term behaviour and impact at all levels of the project — from design analysis to execution. Tools and technology have enabled us through all stages of a given project. From data collection to setting baselines during the pre-design stage to adaptation and resilience planning for the intended design life, design benchmarks, reviewing, project management, budget management, quality management and timely delivery of projects. Today’s dataset available for design is far greater than ever in history. This has offered unique possibilities and advantages as projects become increasingly complex and challenging. It also helps predict future expansion and adaptation possibilities in design, giving designers foresight and projects more flexibility through data-driven designs.
How do you balance short-term business goals with long-term sustainability objectives when designing interventions or implementing changes?
Businesses are operating in a rapidly changing environment today. New technologies are popping up frequently, markets are changing, end-to-end expectations are evolving, and business structure is also changing. Balancing between short-term and longer-term objectives requires changing lenses frequently. Focus on organisational learning and innovation is maintained across projects; short-term goals demand shifts and balance along the way. Hinging decisions on long-term goals may not aid the business in the short term but align with the core values in the long run.
Can you provide insights into your vision for the future of these project domains?
According to a recent statement by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the government is currently focusing on four pillars of the Indian Economy – Infrastructure, Investment, Innovation and Inclusiveness — to make India a developed nation by 2047. Considering that innovation and inclusivity drive the development of new technologies and industries while infrastructure and investment provide the necessary support systems, incentivising and emphasising these four factors is crucial for national economic growth.
The scale and function of these projects impact the nation and its economy, making them a crucial sector in the country’s development. An extensive experience in this niche infrastructural category makes it easier to build a strong team that can approach the design with passion, hard work and innovative solutions.
We are expanding in the logistics and infrastructure sector with government-sector initiatives and private-sector investments. We are also excited about how disruptive technologies are shaping the future of the construction industry and are trying to incorporate them into our designs to overcome specific challenges faced on our projects. For example, we are trying to incorporate 3D printing for faster construction in remote locations and the use of AI during the construction phase to better the quality assurance process and HSE standards on projects.
Why are very few women entering technical roles in the AEC industry, particularly civil engineers, architects, structural engineers, and more? Is this changing?
AEC has traditionally been a highly male-dominated industry, and not many women consider construction or civil engineering a career option. Architecture, being a creative field, is equally difficult for both men and women as a profession. The underrepresentation of women in technical roles within the AEC industry is majorly due to historical gender norms and bias, the taboo around women working in technical fields and physical construction sites, the wage gap, traditional work culture and environment, lack of representation and support, challenges in balancing work and family, and lack of opportunities. The AEC industry has often been characterised by a male-centric culture, which can create a less inclusive environment for women. This can include issues such as lack of mentorship, exclusion from decision-making, or unwelcoming workspaces. Moreover, establishing a career for women is relatively more difficult, predominantly due to us being a modern-traditional society.
Cultural shifts and continued awareness-raising efforts are crucial in dismantling the barriers that hinder women’s career advancement. Efforts to address this gender disparity involve initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion of policies in workplaces, implement STEM education for girls, provide mentorship and networking opportunities, and raise awareness about the importance of gender equality in technical fields. Creating more inclusive and supportive environments can help attract and retain more women in technical roles within the AEC industry.
What challenges do women in managerial roles face in the AEC industry?
Some technical roles in the AEC industry may involve inflexible work hours or require physical presence on construction sites, which can be challenging for individuals with caregiving responsibilities. Women may face unique challenges in balancing their professional careers with family responsibilities. This can be particularly pronounced in roles that may involve demanding project schedules and on-site work.
Unconscious bias also plays a role in hiring and promotion decisions, with those conducting interviews or evaluations unintentionally favouring male candidates. The perception that there are limited opportunities for career advancement in technical roles within the AEC industry can dissuade women from pursuing or staying in such positions.
What message would you like to give aspiring women in the industry?
Design and architecture are extremely fulfilling professions. Every new project is equally demanding and requires one to work relentlessly. It is not the best return on investment in terms of time spent, but it is one of the most fulfilling choices. The evolving needs of the industry today have made architectural or design practices unrecognisably different from how these firms operated just a decade ago. Integrated with the constant innovative technology boom, the requirements of an engineering or a design-based firm have changed holistically.
The success of a design/engineering firm depends heavily on its projects and their impact on the urban fabric and its users. Ensuring a creative and hard-working team passionate about work, positively learning and growing in a healthy work environment will reflect in the designs produced by the firm. If approached with the right attitude and knowledge, anyone can deliver innovative, technologically advanced and sustainable projects that can lead to success.