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Kate Cairns

Kate Cairns

Embedding Sustainability & Inclusivity in Engineering, Durham University


Project management, Environment


United Kingdom
My highlights

Awarded the 'Above and Beyond' honour by New Civil Engineer (EMAP)

Given ‘Person with a Purpose’ Award by Northern Power Women

Voted one of The Telegraph’s Top 50 Women in Engineering in 2018

How I became a civil engineer

I studied civil engineering at the University of Bristol and then I went on to do a year’s research at the Laboratoire Central Des Ponts et Chaussees into porous road surfaces, nowadays known as SUDS (sustainable [urban] drainage systems). I was already really interested in how technologies could make us more sustainable. A few years later I did an MSc in Environmental Technology at Imperial College to gain more insight.

​I was appointed Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor: Embedding Sustainability and Inclusivity in Engineering, at Durham University in 2019 and so I’m now also responsible for inspiring a new generation of engineers to protect our environment.

I’m also a professional speaker and I also run my own business, Cairns Consultancy, which helps engineering and construction companies work in greener, more sustainable ways.

I believe we should protect and enhance our precious and fragile environment and being a civil engineer means I have opportunities to do that.

Kate is an ICE Superhero because...

Kate Cairns is a civil engineer passionate about protecting the environment.

Kate earned her superhero status and nickname Enviro for her work helping construction companies to work in a greener and safer way – using less resources like water, concrete and fossil fuels.

ICE superhero: Enviro
ICE superhero: Enviro

We asked Kate…

what do you consider the major achievements in your career so far?

I have always wanted to be at the front of change and new things throughout my career (and in my personal life!). Thats why I’ve become an expert in safety, sustainability, and inclusivity. And why I started snowboarding before there were even special snowboard boots! And why I love kitesurfing.

In safety, I campaigned for change to European Law and campaigned for a new industry standard to make construction HGVs safer. Now no unsafe lorries are allowed in London and I’m working to make this the case across the country. After the death of my sister, Eilidh Cairns, who was run down from behind by a tipper lorry whilst cycling to work, I founded the See Me Save Me campaign to stop this happening to others. I love cycling and it’s a free and green way to travel with no emissions and no pollution. We should all be able to cycle without fear of being run over.

In sustainability, 20 years ago I was working to reduce the effects of climate change; when working at WSP I managed a European research project investigating passive downdraft evaporative cooling (PDEC) techniques. PDEC is a low-tech low-energy solution to help cope with rising temperatures and the ‘heat island effect’ in cities (air-conditioning units pumping out heated air and making city centre streets hot)– a growing issue due to climate change.
I wrote a standard (like a rule) for all engineers on sustainability. This means that all future civil engineers have a tool for making whatever it is they are building more sustainable, that is good for people and good for the planet.

Inclusivity - I have worked to make civil engineering more attractive to lots of different people, anyone can have a career in civil engineering, whatever their gender, race, nationality. I was part of the process that selected the first ever Asian female President of the ICE, since it was formed over 200 years ago. I hope this will help demonstrate you can be successful whoever you are. 

what’s one great thing that you love about civil engineering that you didn’t know until you started working in the industry?

There are a few great things about civil engineering that attracted me to the industry. Firstly, the fact that you can be really technical and get to the essence of equations. Then the fact that you can solve problems, you can travel, you can be outside or in the office.

There's so much variety but one of the things that I didn't really appreciate is the the joy in working with big teams, small teams and such diverse people. I didn't really understand how diverse the whole profession was. And I think that has become apparent as time has gone on.

Infrastructure projects are being created and built by a whole host of people with different backgrounds and different skills - planners, project managers, stakeholder engagement people - and that's one of the things I really love about civil engineering. It's so diverse and the people that you work with and speak to have got such a range of skills and experiences and expertise, so I'm constantly learning.

which individual project or person inspired you to become a civil engineer?

My parents were both teachers, my mother was in science and my father was an artist and so I had instilled in me a sense of serving the public, of social justice.

So I really wanted to contribute to a better world and a better environment for other people. My mother was probably the most influential. She persuaded me that I could travel and be outside – that I could have variety in my career. And that's why I chose civil engineering.

So before I studied civil engineering I was actually really, really interested in psychology. I believe I've come full circle in that because I'm really interested now in why we build, what we build, and how we build. And my kind of key areas of expertise are sustainability, safety and inclusivity. In that sense, what I work on is the impact of our infrastructure on the community.

what about being a civil engineer inspires you?

The ability to shape the world and make it better, in so many way. From the big things like influencing a major project to be more sustainable and safe and inclusive to the small, for instance, mentoring a student to help them achieve a goal that they were struggling with.

would you recommend a career in civil engineering?

I believe we should protect and enhance our precious and fragile environment and being a civil engineer means I can do that almost better than anybody. Engineers need to harness the power of nature but we’ve got to value it too. I want to make sure the next generation of civil engineers has our fragile environment in their minds when they are designing and building structures to protect and serve us humans.