Surrounded by a group of 6-year-olds, Shirl Buss was demonstrating how to use a power drill, an electric sander and a jigsaw. While each child took a practice run on some scraps of wood, carpenter Teresa Kasza sketched a design of the bookcase the children would be building for their day-care center, the Isabel Patterson Child Development Center at Cal State Long Beach.
When the demonstration was over, Lourdes Padgett and Lauren Pauling rushed over to work with Kasza on the bookcases; three boys opted to make airplanes with Buss.
Buss, owner of Building Women Inc., one of the few general contracting firms owned and operated solely by women, was delighted when the girls expressed interest in someday becoming builders. "I couldn't have asked for a better reaction," she said. "Our whole purpose in working with children is to eliminate stereotypes by showing them that these options do exist. I don't necessarily want them to grow up and be construction workers--but it's exciting for me when they realize they could be if they wanted to."
Building Women spent much of the summer designing and creating a play environment for the day-care center while it was closed for vacation. With the children back at play, Buss was eager to observe them as they used the new equipment--suspension bridges, slides and sandboxes--to make sure there weren't any problems. Other features include a multicultural village called "the neighborhood," a main street with storefronts and a barn for the center's hens and pygmy goat.
'Feeling of Power'
"Learning to use tools builds self-confidence," said Buss, a general contractor who has a master's degree in early childhood education from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena. "It gives people a feeling of power over their environment."
Buss got interested in carpentry 10 years ago while working as a supervisor in a home for emotionally disturbed children, where she taught carpentry with some donated tools. To learn more about woodworking, she enrolled in a furniture-making class and discovered she enjoyed it.
"It was so refreshing to work with things rather than all those emotions," Buss said.
She was ready for a change when she heard about the Handywomen Project, a program funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act and sponsored by the city of Santa Monica. She quit teaching and spent the next 2 1/2 years in the project getting on-the-job training in carpentry, cabinetry, electrical work, home repair and general construction through the refurbishment of low-income homes in Santa Monica.
The Handywomen Project was among the first to combine skill development for women with community service. Twelve women participated in the project, which also offered classes at Santa Monica College in estimating, blueprint reading and drafting.
When it ended in 1979, four of the women decided to form their own corporation, Building Women Inc.
"It was very difficult for women to break into non-traditional fields at the time and construction is one of the hardest," Buss said. "We were able to give each other a lot of support with our own company."
Began as Collective
Originally it was run as a collective with each woman sharing equally in the responsibilities. "Unfortunately, that system was not always effective," Buss said, "and now we're more traditional, although I miss that sharing of the commitment."
Buss is the chief contractor and organizes the projects. She has four employees and said one of her greatest challenges is finding women who know carpentry. (According to a 1983 survey by the Construction Industry Research Board, only 1.1% of union construction workers were women.)
"We get calls from so many women who say they know carpentry. But the truth is that they really don't because they haven't had the opportunities to learn. I've hired some women because they said they were qualified, then had to let them go when I saw how little they knew. That's so painful because I'm torn between wanting to help and involve women and wanting to protect women in their best image."
Buss admits that's the conflict that causes her the most pain and the issue she's most reluctant to discuss.
"Being a woman in a man's field means we're constantly having to prove ourselves and that really takes its toll. If we make a mistake or we're too slow, it's because we're women. Maybe it's because I'm a perfectionist, but I feel a lot of pressure--as if everyone's watching and I don't want to let all of womanhood down."
There haven't been any of those problems at the Isabel Patterson Child Development Center. Director Pam Macdonald said she has been delighted with the company ever since it was referred by the center's original architect, Frank Sata.
Teresa Kasza, who did most of the designing and building of the storefronts and "the neighborhood," describes their system as "organic construction."
Emphasis on Flexibility