He graduated just five years ago but already Obiora Onuora is a senior engineer leading teams on projects worth £110m. It’s no wonder he clinched this year’s Newcomer of the Year at the Building Awards. Katie Puckett asked him how he got there …
Obiora Onuora graduated from Brunel University in 2003 with a first-class masters degree in mechanical engineering, then joined building services engineer Hurley Palmer Flatt. Now, at the age of 28, he is a senior engineer leading his own projects.
Whether he’s coming up with ways to incorporate innovative cooling solutions into state-of-the-art projects or presenting his ideas to clients, Onuora seems unfazed, so it’s likely that he’ll take winning Building’s Newcomer of the Year award in his stride, too.
Why did you choose mechanical engineering?
My uncle was a civil engineer and it sounded really glamorous. He worked on Hong Kong’s Tsiong Ma bridge, which is the longest road and rail suspension bridge in the world.
I chose to study mechanical engineering because I can relate to it – it’s tangible and I like that I can physically see the improvements I make with, say, heating and ventilation systems. It’s about making spaces more comfortable for people.
What have you been proudest of so far?
The data centre project I’m lead mechanical design engineer on at the moment. I started my career less than five years ago, so to be leading a £110m project makes me very proud. I’m responsible for managing a team of engineers, presenting designs to the client and I’ve been involved in high-level decisions.
You got the client on that project to adopt an ice storage cooling system that will save 4,867 tonnes of CO2 each year. How?
I can’t take all the credit for that. The client had been to manufacturers workshops in the US and seen the system. It hadn’t been used much in data centres before, so we had to work out how to work it into the design.
Is it scary presenting your ideas to clients?
Initially presentations are nerve-wracking, but we have to do it at every stage and by the time you get to the detailed designs you’re a lot more confident. I don’t like presenting with paper notes because it’s hard to read something when you’re trying to speak to someone; I prefer to do it just with slides. It sounds daft, but I like to present to myself first. If I go to a room and do a dry run, I’m generally a little more confident.
You’ve been given a lot of responsibility pretty young. Are you an ambitious person?
Absolutely. I’ve been very fortunate with my boss – when a challenge came along he put me right in front of it. He was supposed to do a presentation to five contractors and the client on a project, but he had to go away to America so he asked me to do it instead. Other people might not have wanted to step up to the plate, but I like to take opportunities that come along.
All the judges talked about your management potential – is that what you’d like to do?
In five years, I’d like to be at associate or divisional director level, and at board level in 10.
In five years, I’d like to be at associate or divisional director level, and at board level in 10. I’m working towards chartership with CIBSE now, and I’m hoping to have signed off against all 16 objectives in about two-and-a-half years and then to go for my interview, so I’m chartered in three. Hopefully in a year or so I’ll be going out bidding and winning jobs.
Why have you chosen CIBSE rather than getting chartered with, say, IMechE?
I did look at IMechE, but it’s a lot broader. I wanted to do something specific to the industry I’m working in. CIBSE is specific to building services and I think it’s more rigorous as well.
Your boss told us you take things in your stride – how do you remain calm when things are going wrong onsite?
I think it’s all about work-life balance. At the end of the day, I come to work to earn a living and progress my career, but I’ve got a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, so there are other things outside work that are important. If you’ve got a proper balance you can take things in your stride.
Your boss also said you act like someone with 10 years’ experience – why do you think you have such a mature attitude?
I’ve worked for a lot of good bosses, and I think when you work with good people, a little bit of their confidence, charisma and how they do things, rubs off on you. We’re a very young company. Our managing director got the job when he was 32 or 33. If you’re confident, age doesn’t matter.
You’ve also managed to build good relationships with the teams on all your projects – how do you do that when things are going wrong?
When I worked on the Shell Centre, we were based on site in the contractor’s cabin and it did get heated. There are arguments when people have different opinions or there are changes to the design. But there’s work, and then there’s relationships with people outside work. It’s important in that sort of project to make time to do team building things outside of work.
Like going to the pub?
Definitely – and we had a go-carting day with Amec. It’s a chance to forget work for a bit and get to know people personally. You may have to go into a meeting and shout at someone, but they know it’s only work and it’s not personal.
What would you like to change about the industry?
I’d like to see fewer cut-throat deadlines and for clients to appreciate how long it takes to deliver quality design. Also, I think designers should be involved a lot earlier at concept stage, as we could help develop more energy-efficient projects.
What advice would you give someone just finishing university now?
Have a good look around, and go into a company that will let you drive your own career. Get them to spell out what you could be involved in, otherwise you could spend the first few years of your career not learning much or progressing.
Who are your heroes?
From an engineering point of view, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Apart form that, I love Bob Marley because he was about freedom of speech. When I was growing up in Nigeria his songs were pretty relevant to me. I also support Arsenal, even though they are having a tough time at the moment! My favourite players are Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas because they have talent and they work hard on the pitch, and they play for the whole team, not just themselves.
More coverage of the Building Awards at www.building.co.uk/awards.