People & Places

Structural transformations: My SAHC adventure

26 April, 2024 4 min reading
Francesca Marafini, Italy

Structural transformations: My SAHC adventure

“I decided to apply to the SAHC Master Course because I am deeply interested in existing building design projects, especially if the structures have a particular architectural and historical value, as they can play a fundamental role in providing a recognizable image to a city or a site, and create a sense of belonging for the people that make use of it or simply visit it. In these instances, the engineer becomes the guardian of history and identity, promotes the rebirth of buildings, and takes responsibility for safety and technical coherence.”


This is an actual quote from my SAHC motivation letter from 2019. I was definitely passionate about historical structures. I tended to be a little dramatic about my life purpose in a way that made me cringe at my past self. And yes, my writing was tainted with extremely long and articulate sentences. I had yet to rewire my Italian brain to scientific writing in English. My SAHC experience was transformative with all of the above, and more.


Born and raised in Rome, I grew up surrounded by Roman archaeological ruins and the urban landscapes layered on top of them. It was impossible to escape the beauty you can find in decadence. Studying building engineering, I realized that historical structures are the most exciting and interesting topic there is. I worked on one for my master’s thesis, but I needed to know more, and that’s what brought me to SAHC. My expectations were exceeded and disappointed at the same time, but in a good way.


First of all, the SAHC education level was much higher than what I had experienced before. It was a mix of theory and hands-on practice, taught by professors who were really passionate about their subjects. They made complex concepts accessible without ever making you feel ignorant. The course provided access to a structural lab where we learned about material and structural testing, and coming from long years of books and architectural drawings at best, it all felt like an adult playground to me.


Class of 2019-20, proud after a four-point bending (TPB) test on masonry wallets.



One of the biggest challenges was the group work with people from various cultural and professional backgrounds. I have always experienced diversity as something enriching, but this time it was also testing and formative. Presenting in front of a room of 30 people and writing detailed reports on a bi-weekly basis will build up your communication skills more than you can imagine. The course structure with monthly exams was different from my Italian experience of yearly courses and summer cramming for the exams. I feel like I learned a new way to study and I did not expect it.


Going for drinks after a long night of studying.



Academically, the course was more research-oriented than I anticipated, and I was confused at first. Going forward, though, it fed my curiosity and opened up a huge research tab in my brain that I hadn’t explored before. I never thought I would end up working in a software company developing finite element models, teaching courses online, and later doing research in Structural Health Monitoring (SHM) of historical buildings. I didn’t even know what SHM was before, and SAHC provided the mentorship and connections to discover I could study it. Now, one of my case studies is the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and I am working with UMinho as a Cotutelle PhD student.


Overall, my SAHC journey was not linear, with more plot twists than expected, but it was definitely worth it. At some point, I broke a foot; I did my Dissertation from home because of the pandemic, missing out on three months of life in Barcelona, and my career path definitely changed. In return, I made long-lasting and life-changing friendships with people I can travel with and turn from tourists to impromptu visual inspectors. I explored Portugal, visiting abandoned and poetic places, like the Bustelo Monastery, which was my Integrated Project topic. I learned more than I could ever imagine and sparked a desire for more that is yet to be fulfilled.



A trip to Lisbon, looking at masonry cracks with my SAHC friends.
One of the masonry cracks monitored on the Dome of Florence part of my PhD topic.


Bustelo Monastery, east wing, at sunset.


I am definitely less dramatic; I did not become a “guardian of history and identity”, and I do hope my English is better. I turned into a PhD student, too caffeinated and always in a crisis, but extremely grateful for my current and future path. It was wild, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.



SEE ALSO: My SAHC scientific journey