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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

5 March 2018 – Helene Gosden, Senior Design Manager at Arup reflects on how studying CISL’s Master’s in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) exceeded her expectations – helping her to progress her career and achieve impact towards sustainability by opening her mind to new people, perspectives and the broader societal, economic and environmental drivers that shape the built environment.

My father was an engineer and in school I was interested in maths, logistics and problem solving. That led me to embark on an engineering degree at Imperial College London.

Whilst working at Arup, I saw the IDBE course advertised internally with the offer of company sponsorship for one or two successful candidates. A colleague who had taken the course found it to be hugely rewarding and this inspired me to sign up. If accepted, I felt this had the potential to be the next significant step in my career.

A greater benefit

The course exceeded all of my expectations.


Through the course, as expected, I learnt how to apply soft skills and project management processes to multi-discipline design and collaboration and how other technical disciplines contributed to the built environment. The greatest benefit, however, was how the course broadened my horizons; I learnt from the hugely diverse experiences of fellow students and staff and found a new appreciation for the full breadth of skills, opportunities and perspectives within the built environment. I began to understand what drives and motivates different people and the skills that could bring them together to create a strong team and an enjoyable, efficient and respectful working environment.

The people on the course came from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. Having different global perspectives and cultural influences was hugely enriching.

The tutors were also skilled at facilitating discussions and workshops that allowed you to think about concepts and ideas in new, refreshing, and inspiring ways. This was so liberating for me because in our day-to-day working environment, often under significant commercial pressure, it was all too easy to focus only on what you need to do to deliver the end objective. As built environment professionals become more experienced and adept at streamlining this process they can also inadvertently close themselves off to alternative views and methods. The IDBE course allowed me to take time to explore factors, from team dynamics at project level, to the societal and environmental drivers that influence city master-planning and urban regeneration policy. Though non-technical, these issues have a critical impact on my day-to-day work. The knowledge and expertise the guest lecturers brought to the table, in this context, was hugely valuable and something you wouldn’t have access to on a daily basis.

The pillars of sustainable development

For my thesis, I looked at the technical feasibility of adaptive reuse, specifically the potential for the conversion of buildings from office to residential. I am strongly of the view that the construction industry can and should re-use their buildings more. The rejuvenation of an obsolete commercial property into much-needed housing stock aligns at every level with the three pillars of sustainable development: environmental, societal and economic. Based on my own professional experience and awareness of increasing trends, especially in London – such as the high rate of demolition of existing buildings as opposed to refurbishment. I wanted to understand what factors were preventing us reusing our buildings more.

Coming from a technical engineering background I understood the key technical constraints of adaptive re-use but I wanted to understand if the rest of the disciplines within the design team shared my perspective or if they had different interpretations of the situation which were compounding the lack of adaptive reuse. In order to gain an interdisciplinary perspective, which I believe can only improve the level of service we deliver to our clients and the design of the end product; I carried out interviews with architects, cost consultants and client members to determine what the most important issues were to each of them. Without exception, I found them to be strongly engaged with the subject, frank in the opinions they shared and enthusiastic about the opportunities that the results of my research might present.

From an engineering perspective I was pleased to find that the non-technical members of the design team did consider technical issues in their feasibility assessments. However, I was also made aware of a significant amount of non-technical considerations that they used to consider the feasibility of projects. I used the results of my research to combine existing work by Gann (1996) and Wilkinson (2009) with my data to develop a prioritised list of building attributes to help better assess the feasibility of adaptive reuse projects.

A rounded knowledge

Throughout the course my overall awareness of the myriad of considerations relating to engaging with the built environment increased exponentially, while my depth of knowledge on sustainability issues became more rounded.

Working on my thesis made me even more passionate about the opportunities that exist to breathe new life into old buildings. It reinforced the need to look harder for the hidden potential of buildings we consider to be redundant before writing them off.

The course gave me the opportunity to reflect on what role I play within the construction industry, what I do well, what I care about and how all these things might align to allow me to make the most positive contribution. I was able to step back and examine my potential career path objectively within a nurturing learning environment. I realised that my strengths and interests lie in delivering complex multidisciplinary projects.

Linking IDBE and career development

Looking back now, there is a clear link between my career development and taking the IDBE Master’s. On return to work, after attending the course and a period of maternity leave, I made a conscious move away from technical design to a design management role. I now facilitate and lead exceptional projects. To me an efficient design, which meets and will continue to meet the needs of the user for years to come is a highly sustainable project. That is what motivates me. Linking back to my thesis research, I always strive to demonstrate the benefits of sustainability from a business perspective.

Across the industry, I think people need to understand that we all have our part to play in the bigger picture of securing a sustainable future for our communities. You have to be able to link sustainable aspirations to financial and economic considerations if you’re going to affect long-term change.


Gann, D.M., Barlow, J. 1996 Flexibility in building use: the technical feasibility of converting redundant offices into flats, Construction Management and Economics, 14 (1) 55-66.

Wilkinson, S.J.; James, K., Reed, R. (2009). Using building adaptation to deliver sustainability in Australia. Structural Survey, 27 (1) pp46-61

Find out more about the IDBE Master’s, or if you have any questions about the course. 

Discover how previous IDBE graduates have used IDBE to accelerate their career. 

Apply for the IDBE Postgraduate Certificate or the IDBE Master’s.

About the author

Helene Gosden blog

Helene Gosden works as a Senior Design Manager within Arup’s Buildings London team. She started the role in March 2017 and prior to that worked as a structural engineer at Arup. She attended the Interdisciplinary Design of the Built Environment (IDBE) Master’s course between 2013–2015.  


Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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