The built world from both sides – architectural graduate and carpenter calls for industry change in construction

by Helena Morgan
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Former architectural graduate and associate Sally Wills used feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction towards the discipline to propel her forward into a carpentry apprenticeship.

A year into the apprenticeship, she still experiences the effects of a jarring yet rewarding sea change, and working in construction has seen Wills adopt a completely new and exciting way of life. 

Before starting her pre-trade in carpentry, Wills understood the function of only one tool in her toolbox, and it was the humble hammer.  

“I’d never touched a tool in my life,” she laughs. She describes being on site as akin to learning a new language. However, this learning experience is not within the comfortable confines of a classroom, but in a physically arduous role where fatigue, exhaustion and pressure scale high, and you are pushed to “work for the millimetre.”

While working in construction is the “most challenging thing she’s ever done”, Wills gains immense satisfaction from her work, despite being the lowest rung on the ladder as an apprentice. 

“Week to week and day to day, it’s just an unbelievable amount of information that you’re processing,” she says. 

Complicated relationship with architecture 

Wills was inspired by her late grandfather Ewen Christie to pursue a career in architecture, yet quickly realised she possessed a somewhat complicated and love-hate relationship with the discipline. She enjoyed select areas, yet struggled with the technical side of things, and found herself at a crossroads at the end of her undergraduate degree. 

“I was really torn because I was not particularly strong at the design side,” she says. “It’s a cool career, but not for me.”

Wills moved back to her hometown Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland)  from Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington), and dove into a Master of Urban Planning, which proved enjoyable. She opted for a combined Masters in Urban Planning and Architecture. 

However, she was disheartened by the limited job opportunities in urban planning, which prompted her to start interning as an architect with a healthcare architecture practice. 

Wills says that a carpentry apprenticeship is the “most challenging thing she’s ever done.”

Healthcare architecture is a whole other kettle of fish, says Wills, yet she was inspired by the specialty’s fusion of science and architecture and the exciting opportunities the internship provided. 

“I was running user groups with the hospital staff and coordinating 20 different consultancies as a young graduate,” says Wills. 

She remembers not feeling confident and equipped to take on large projects due to gaps in knowledge and the educational process, which hints at the possible need for wider tertiary architecture reform. 

“I started getting really uneasy about the fact that I felt very unconfident in my understanding of buildings and the technological side,” she says.

“Once we actually got to the detailed stage, I still didn’t understand materials – I’d never seen them before.”

Superiors reassured Wills that she would eventually master the skills, or that she could still prosper in the industry by relying on the sense of authority and prestige that comes from a leadership role, when she found herself in a higher position. 

“Someone told me that I could still lead a team of people and they would respect me, and I would not need to understand it,” she tells Facility Management. 

“And I thought, oh god, that’s almost worse!”

A foray into carpentry 

Wills came across a pre-trade carpentry course in Auckland and negotiated with her place of employment – an architecture firm – to trial the course and return to work. Her fascination for the world of carpentry compelled her to remain. She cites the pre-trade year as immensely rewarding, as it foregrounded her belief in the critical need for practical skills in construction.

Wills’ supportive tutor Ruben Sigglekow encouraged her to complete an apprenticeship, which anchors an apprentice to a certain place for three or four years, so she made the decision to live somewhere new, expand social circles and observe how this move would nurture her personal goals and ambitions. 

“I thought, ‘I’m going to be stuck in whatever location my apprenticeship is in for a little while’,” she says. “I was ready to live somewhere new and meet new people.” 

Alas, she made her way across the Tasman to Melbourne in search of challenge and change.

No room for handballing

Carpentry has exposed Wills to a vast and varied world that has seen her acquire new communication styles and both learn and unlearn behaviours. 

“Carpentry has taught me a completely different way of life,” she says. “I’ve had to let go of preconceived ideas about communication and how you learn things, and, unfortunately, let go of my sustainability mindset in order to keep pace as an apprentice.”

Active listening and attentiveness are imperative – apprentices observe people and their movements, machinations and habits. “You learn from someone else – you listen to them.”

There is no room for handballing tasks as an apprentice, and Wills likens her role to an exercise in obedience and humility. 

“When you are on site as the apprentice, you just have to do it and there’s no excuses,” she says. “It’s a much harsher environment to be in than in a studio.”

Mistakes on full display

The act of contemplation and pondering, familiar to the four walls of an architecture studio, is replaced by snap decisions that still uphold safety and consider the structural integrity of the building.

Wills describes the sense of pressure as “acute” – omnipresent eyes make sure she is operating at a 100 percent capacity, even at times “when you might not actually know what you are doing”.

She remembers that misjudgements and mistakes can be slightly concealed in an architecture studio, whereas errors in carpentry are magnified and spotlighted. 

“Mistakes [during design] are undercover if you’re an architect – in construction it’s visible, and you have to take ownership for every single thing.” 

The camaraderie and solidarity encountered on site overrides a tendency to deflect blame and save face. “The environment has been pretty tough, but I do genuinely have a lot of respect for the people that I work with,” says Wills. 

Although the environment has been tough, Wills has a lot of respect for the people she works with.

Possibility for architecture to learn from construction 

Wills assumed habits and philosophies developed from her time as an architectural graduate would neatly slot into a construction site, however she found that she essentially had to rewire her thinking and approaches. “I have basically had to let go of all my learning,” she says. 

The pace and pressure on site can be crippling and stressful, particularly as an apprentice at the bottom of the pecking order subject to scoldings for doing something for the first time. 

“You’re trying to move through the work really quickly – you are not necessarily thinking about the overall outcome,” says Wills.

She believes that architecture’s negligence to educate students at a tertiary level in the tenets and bedrocks of construction work is a “missed opportunity.” Allocating time to teaching even the foundations of construction could remedy the regularly circulated complaint Wills hears of architectural graduates having no concept of construction, despite armed with “open minds and out-of-the-box thinking skills”.

The inappropriate ‘rite of passage’ argument

Educational reform appears to be staring architecture in the face, particularly when coupled with the notoriously demanding workloads. Wills wants to see tertiary level architecture abandon the belief that pulling all-nighters is a rite of passage for the profession, as it places undue pressure and stress on students. 

“The hard work and deadlines glorified doing all-nighters and spending a ridiculous number of hours on something that is only occasionally for the benefit of the project,” she says. 

Striving for good design solutions should still mean people are able to live a healthy, balanced and flexible life, says Wills. A cultural shift in how the discipline approaches assessments is needed, so students do not strive for excellence at the expense of burnout and fatigue. 

The nature of being on-site 

Wills says even though construction is not as monolithic as it once was, the industry is still gradually working to dismantle barriers and include women on site. 

“I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve worked on site with another woman in the past year,” says Wills. “I guess things are changing, but it does feel like quite a slow industry to change.”

Construction is undeniably a tough, onerous and physically exhausting job that demands strength and endurance.

“There are parts of the industry that lend itself to the male psyche and just general behaviour and communication,” says Wills.

At the beginning of her apprenticeship, Wills reports feeling marooned on an island and churning a wheel to keep up with the speed essential for on-site work. 

The apprenticeship realm, in a way, is an equal and unbiased playing field – sex, age and ethnicity do not necessarily guarantee a spot of superiority or inferiority, or exemption from criticism. 

“At the start, I felt very isolated – and still sometimes do – because it felt so foreign to me,” says Wills. 

“I was just speaking a completely different language to people and I was getting yelled at and told off, and that’s not because of the people that I work with or because I’m a woman, but that is just how it is on site.” 

At the start, she found it hard to decipher if things were difficult for her because she is a woman in construction, or if things were difficult because she is a first year apprentice. Wills now realises it’s the latter. “Being an apprentice just sucks at times no matter who you are,” she says. 

A construction site is governed by industry-specific work ethic expectations and an innately hierarchical framework. Wills says the occasional tension in the air is enhanced by the fact that apprentices are not always instructed to do something, yet left to their own devices at the bottom of the food chain. 

“They’re yelling at you because that is the communication style on site, and they need to clearly get this across to you,” she says. 

Wills speaks of the industry-specific work ethic expectations and innately hierarchical framework on a construction site.

Insidious instances of sexism on the job site 

Wills can count on one hand the number of times she’s worked with another woman on site. It reinforces to her the need to determine how willing the industry is to accept, and eventually adapt, to women on construction sites.

Wills says the slow pace of change is illustrated through insidious reminders of the male-dominated nature of construction, such as the absence of sanitary bins on construction sites. 

However, Wills says she is often unmotivated to address these injustices as she works to avoid anything that further illuminates her difference, alongside believing that wider industry changes for all are needed. 

“There are lots of ways in which you are excluded,” she says. “But perhaps you don’t feel comfortable to, or necessarily want to bring up these things, because you’re trying to fit in and show that you don’t have other needs,” she says. 

Wills reports a generally positive experience – despite falling victim to gendered assumptions that are symptomatic of narrow-mindedness, such as being mistaken for her workmates’ wife. 

“In terms of outright sexism, I think there’s lots of ways where people probably don’t genuinely believe I’m as capable,” she says. 

The apprentice status does not necessarily help people shed the tendency to assume Wills’ status on site, as she is occasionally conducting administrative and caregiving tasks often associated with femininity. 

“You are playing into the role of getting things for the person [you’re working with] and helping them, in a quite classically feminine way,” says Wills.

She predicts that female construction workers showcasing their lives on TikTok will help recruit women to the industry and communicate that it is both arduous and fulfilling. 

“It would be great to see someone who looks like you being able to do these things and talk about all the benefits of the job, such as learning to be more hands-on and capable and solve problems,” says Wills. 

Neglected as a viable career option

Wills is motivated by the desirable prospects of working in construction, such as holding a qualification in addition to the financial stability, yet maintains these benefits are not advertised effectively to women.

“Having women on site makes it a dynamic and diverse workplace, which can only mean good things for the industry,” she says. 

“I think it’s unfair that women aren’t shown construction as a viable option, whether it be a role that is hands-on, or a different part of the industry.”

As the founder and managing director of Urban Core, Dominique Gill, outlined in her recent interview with Facility Management, construction would benefit from having the ‘last resort’ association removed, so that it is not perceived as something that people begrudgingly fall into studying. 

“I want to make this an industry of choice – and not just an industry to get into because you didn’t get the high ATAR for law or medicine,” says Gill. 

Construction meeting women halfway

How willing is the construction industry to meet women halfway? It is no secret that an unavoidable requirement of working on site is physical endurance – what happens if a female construction worker falls pregnant and is not physically capable during the maternity period to do the tasks and roles she could once successfully complete?

To ensure a female construction worker does not lose her sense of connection to the site while on maternity leave, would construction adapt to the needs of women on maternity leave and help women regain strength and confidence? Your body is your instrument on site, and re-entry back into the industry postpartum would likely be gradual and onerous. 

Wills is unsure if construction is committed to fully adapting to the needs of women just yet, and instead points to the need for wider industry change, irrespective of the needs of women.

She says many construction workers have their own struggles and endure working tough conditions, therefore the industry needs to make changes to accommodate everyone. Wills believes wider industry reform could assist in reversing the sobering statistic that 190 construction workers take their lives every year in Australia.

Wills points to the need for wider industry change.

Residential and commercial construction 

Wills highlights the disparity between the conditions of residential and commercial construction – she predicts that commercial construction is more likely to embrace progressive and positive change as it’s unionised. 

“There’s a higher percentage of women on site in commercial,” says Wills. “I think it’s more regulated as they’re trying to get their numbers up – I guess the regulation is geared towards doing whatever society sees as the right thing.” 

Wills say commercial construction workers are generally paid better, receive scheduled breaks and appear more open and inclusive to hiring women. Comparatively, residential construction carries a rather blokey and gung-ho identity – stubborn and resistant to change, with limited care for worker wellbeing. However, she still sees the learning opportunities for apprentices in residential work outweigh the benefits of commercial work.

“You’re relying on your body to hold out for all of that work and there’s not a lot of breaks given.”

She hopes improvements to conditions for women in commercial will impact the standards for all workers, and filter through to residential.

Wills is inspired by this possible reality of the industry meeting women halfway, yet believes construction should prioritise gradual industry change for everyone before fully adapting to the specific needs of women.

A severe but gratifying learning curve

Wills does not embellish how difficult it is to work on site. “It’s just so tough,” she says. “The learning curve is steep, and I guess that can be a good and bad thing.”

The atmosphere of the site is crucial to sustaining morale and endurance, which can seem out of reach to Wills when stress and tension reverberate around the site. Additionally, incorrectly completing a task is fatiguing and draining.

“It’s really hard work just being wrong a lot of the time [as an apprentice],” says Wills. “You’re getting told that everything’s wrong and you do it again, but it just feels like you’re going round in circles.”

However, Wills is beginning to witness improvements in the quality of her work and finds the rollercoaster role equally thrilling and daunting. 

“I don’t think there are a lot of jobs that have this steep of a learning curve – which is really amazing,” she finishes. 

Featured Image: Carpentry apprentice Sally Wills.

Photography supplied by Sally Wills. 

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