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Women Making Marks in Construction and Sustainable Design

Recently the Business Examiner printed a feature article about women in construction. Artisans Group Lead Designer and Co-owner, Tessa Smith, was interviewed to share her experiences as one who is at the leading edge of sustainable design and construction in South Puget Sound. Article reposted below.
IMG_0538web Tessa Smith and Randy Foster, owners of The Artisans Group (photo ©BE)

Women making marks in construction

Companies growing despite unique challenges of the industry August 22, 2011 Holly Smith Peterson Business Examiner Builder Tessa Smith was walking toward one of her project sites when a worker on the roof whistled at her in admiration. Surprised, she looked up at him. And then she laughed. “I asked him, ‘Do you know who I am?’” she said. “He shook his head. So, I said, ‘I suggest you find out.’” That’s because Smith isn’t just a builder. At 24, she’s a talented young designer and one of only 200 certified Passive House consultants in the United States. As the co-owner of the Artisans Group construction firm in Olympia, she also was in charge of the project. “My dad taught drafting at a local community college, so I was always on construction sites,” she said. “It’s definitely in the blood.” Such blatant sexism, she said, is one of the challenges she occasionally encounters as a woman running construction projects. But she’s willing to brush aside such treatment for a bigger cause: advancing sustainable building in the South Sound. “I don’t just have the issue of being a woman,” Smith said. “I’m a really young woman. So, sometimes subcontractors who aren’t clued in want to think of me as just a designer — which is traditionally the more female role in the industry. But I’m also as involved in the construction side of things as my business partner.” Smith knows that although she’s a rarity in her industry, the gender gap is closing quickly. National trends show, as stated in the “2011 State of Women-Owned Business Report” by American Express, that there are about 8.1 million women-owned businesses in the United States. That number has increased 50 percent in the past four years. In addition, 29 percent of companies are now female-run, generating $1.3 trillion and supporting 7.7 million jobs. The study also found that construction and mining were the top two fields in which the combined growth of businesses and revenue for women-owned firms outpaced the industry growth level. Since 2003, there’s also been a 41 percent rise in women-owned construction businesses, a rate that trails only those in administrative and waste services (47 percent) and education (54 percent). In the South Sound, the number of women in the construction industry is rising in all sectors, according to the Association of General Contractors in Seattle. “I can say that women are still the minority in construction,” said Jerry VanderWood, AGC’s Washington communications director, “but I think there’s been a definite uptick, particularly in the younger generation.” Still, as Smith has encountered, there are many hurdles for women in construction to leap, even in this region. Patti Candiotta, owner of Pease Construction in Lakewood, also has faced some unique situations. “It’s often a challenge for women in construction to be taken seriously,” she said. “We have to work harder in some situations at gaining trust.” Although she’s been in the business for 28 years, Candiotta said that she sometimes still feels that she has to prove herself. “Because I’ve built up a very good reputation, it’s not so much of an issue as it was in the beginning,” she said. “But that’s why it’s important for any woman in this business to have a good support system. And also to be a part of trade associations to stay abreast of situations going on, and for networking.” Cynthia Densmore, co-owner of Oregon-based Cascade Tower & Rigging, has worked on construction projects throughout the South Sound, including the University of Washington Tacoma library. She entered the field through her husband’s company and is now in charge of the finances and contracting. “I came into this only as a wife, but I’ve become more aware of women in this business over the years,” Densmore said. “There’s a lot of opportunity, and it’s an exciting place to be. It’s a very dynamic industry that comes with a sense of accomplishment, because at the end of the day you’ve built something.” For women interested in working in construction, she recommends looking into apprenticeships or programs through Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “It’s a great way to become invested in the trade and to actually learn local business,” Densmore said. “And a lot of people get into construction through the military, which has training in all branches — ‘hard hats to helmets,’ as they say.” While VanderWood said that the majority of women in construction in the South Sound are either part of a family business, like Densmore, or working in areas like safety or finance, he agreed that more opportunities are available in all sectors. “My observation in talking with other folks in the AGC, and being at gatherings where people are talking about what they do, is that while women are still definitely in the minority, those numbers are growing,” he said. “Ten years ago, in a meeting of 20 people, there may have been just one or two women. Now, there might be eight or 10. I would suspect that official statistics would bear that out as well.” And there are benefits to being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry, Smith said. “I’m often seen as a novelty,” she said. “And that’s not a bad thing. A lot of clients prefer a young, fresh perspective and someone who’s very familiar with current issues and techniques. Also, when it comes to homes, the woman is often the person driving the major decisions, so a more feminine approach is more compatible — and definitely more appreciated.” Writer Holly Smith Peterson can be reached at