Profiles in design: Civil engineer Sean Sonnemann

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Sean Sonnemann is a graduate civil engineer with Arup’s infrastructure team in New York. I spoke with him about green infrastructure, espionage, and balancing your interests.


Very few people start out wanting be engineers as kids — were you always set on this career path?

Well I can’t really remember anything specific I wanted to be when I was younger, but when I first started college my plan was to study chemical engineering for a premed track. Right away in my first semester, we had a class that sampled the different engineering disciplines — civil, mechanical, chemical — and civil stuck out to me. I think I liked the big picture element of it. There are more tangibles, psychical aspects you can see; whereas with chemical engineering you’re making something but you can’t really see what’s behind the scenes. And I think civil engineering has some similarities to medicine; you can work toward a greater public good.

Were you focused on math and science from the start?

To be honest I was kind of all over the place. I can’t pick a favorite or least favorite subject — I worked on my college newspaper and could have just as easily been an English major. Even though I had this gut feeling that engineering was right for me, I think it’s important to keep myself balanced, to not peg myself as only being good at one thing.

Credit: Arup

So given your alternate path as a journalist, do you have any book recommendations to share?

Right now I’m reading a spy thriller by John le Carré. Next on my list is The Power Broker, which is very engineering/urban planning heavy, but it’s a little intimidating to bring on the subway — it’s a big heavy book to carry around. Overall I’ve always liked American classics, 20th century is probably my favorite: John Steinbeck, etc.

The transition from academia to the professional world can be a bit daunting. Do you still wake up thinking it’s time to go to class?

Now that the fall semester has started and I’ve seen younger friends go back, it’s definitely starting to sink in. I think one of the biggest differences between the two is the scheduling. People in college used to say, “Oh, I have so much free time.” But I was always busy with activities: extracurriculars, internships, jobs. It’s very regimented — what’s the next step, the next semester, the next thing. Out of school it’s really more on you. You don’t have any homework or a project to work on. That freedom is definitely nice.

At the same time, a big chunk of your day is at work and commuting. So you have more free time, but I think you also value it a lot more.

Credit: Arup

So you’ve only really been with Arup a few months. How would you rate your experience so far?

My initial feeling about the company was that it wasn’t just textbook, number-crunching engineering. A lot of companies have a mission statement, an ethos of what they’re about, but I’ve seen already in the few months I’ve been here that Arup’s is authentic, they really back up what they say.

At least in my group, and probably the other groups as well, associates and principals all sit in the same row of cubicles as everyone else. It sounds cliché to say it’s a horizontal office, a horizontal company, but it really does make a difference. You can just look over and ask a question — you don’t have to be intimidated knocking on a closed door or something.

What also sticks out is the continuing education element. In my first or second week, I had already been to two or three presentations — staff talking about their projects, a young members’ forum. It was really encouraging from the start that they not only want to cultivate your skills, but also want you to just keep learning.

Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on, either in your short time with Arup so far or in school or during past internships?

Last summer I worked with Green Infrastructure around the city — I know it’s something that Arup’s worked on as well. These projects try to reduce the potential for flooding and the impact on sewer systems by introducing stormwater bioswales. Basically instead of pavement and impermeable surfaces, we’re making more places for the water to go.

With the recent events in Houston and Florida, you realize these seemingly simple installations can have substantial results.

You’re from New York City originally. Would you guess growing up in a big city drew you toward civil engineering?

Definitely, especially in relation to deciphering how things work. This whole city is a giant puzzle, and you don’t realize — until you find yourself explaining how a sewer system works — that most people have no idea how the city around them operates.

Credit: Arup

And outside of work, do you have any bucket list items you’d like to tackle?

Last semester I took a beginner guitar class, as kind of a last-ditch effort to learn before I got to the real world. I was pretty sure if I didn’t do it then I was never going to. I’ve always wanted to learn an instrument so I’ve been slowly plugging away at that, trying to work on it at least a little bit every day. Not ready for the Arup band that plays on Fridays or anything yet.


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