The ultimate challenge is squeezing everything possible out of a structure

Employee portrait | Shima Reyhani Sanavi

As an adviser on existing structures, Shima Reyhani Sanavi (38) investigates the possibilities for extending the lifespans of civil engineering structures. She sees her job as working on puzzles.

From studying to working in the Netherlands

‘As a child I wanted to be an ophthalmologist, but ultimately I chose engineering. Why? Finding the answer to a maths problem made me happy. I came to the Netherlands to study civil engineering. During my graduation project, my supervisor asked me: ‘What are your plans?’ I’d been busy working on my project and hadn’t given much thought to what would come next, but I’d enjoyed the internship: I learned a lot, had nice colleagues and was given good guidance. So I said: ‘I’d love to stay on here.’ The HR department then arranged for me to work in the Netherlands as a highly skilled migrant. I adjusted to my new life without too much trouble. Of course, Iran and the Netherlands are different countries, but at the end of the day we’re all human beings with many thoughts and emotions in common.’ 

Maximum return

‘For the first ten years of my career at Witteveen+Bos, I primarily worked as a structural engineer on new-build construction projects. It was an instructive period. But then, four years ago, I felt the need to broaden my knowledge and range of tasks. That was spurred by a project on existing infrastructure. What I particularly found interesting at that time was analysing damage – for example, to a bridge or tunnel. It’s like pieces to a puzzle: you dive into old drawings and documents, observe, do research, and look for a structure’s weak points. What’s their origin and, most importantly, can they be fixed? A structure usually lasts longer than its theoretical lifespan. In these times when we want to use raw materials responsibly and not waste money or energy, I see squeezing everything possible out of a structure as the ultimate challenge.’


‘We’re finding increasingly smarter ways to extend the lifespan of structures. We have techniques for slowing down material degradation, strengthening structures, and monitoring their behaviour so that we can intervene in time. A few years ago I visited the Mezquita in Córdoba, a mosque which was built on the site of a former church, on the foundations of a Roman temple. It’s now a multi-religious building. Structurally, it’s very interesting. The Moors reused old marble columns from the Roman buildings, raising them to achieve the desired height. Back then, it was probably resource scarcity that drove people to reuse materials. Terms like sustainability and circularity wouldn’t have existed back then, but people were actually employing the practices. Nowadays we want to protect and restore the environment, and we’re forced to be frugal with everything we have available to us. So you see that every era has its reasons for being creative with existing resources.’