March 8th is International Women’s Day, and this year the OBOA talked with Marianne Brown and Alison Orr, the founders of Orr Brown Consulting Engineers, and members of the OBOA.  Alison and Marianne are Professional Engineers, designated Consulting Engineers, and Certified Building Code Officials. As long standing members of the OBOA, Marianne and Alison gave us their perspective on working in the building industry and have some advice for women who are considering this industry as a career choice. Here’s their story in their own words:

Why did you choose engineering as a career path?

Marianne:  I knew about the Engineering profession because my father was an Engineer.  As a young person I was interested in how things worked, and how things were put together, and I recall watching and helping where I could when my Dad built a log cabin.  I preferred math and science courses in high school, and so Engineering seemed like the right path for me in University.

Alison: I was originally thinking about math or science programs at University, as I enjoyed those subjects, and did well in them.  I didn’t know about engineering at all.  I had a moment of inspiration during a summer vacation, at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, and wondered what program would be relevant, if I wanted to be an inventor. Engineering seemed to fit the bill!

Did you face any challenges as a woman in the engineering program in university? If yes, can you explain.

Marianne: No, I didn’t, at least nothing that affected me.  There are a few stories about profs saying silly things, such as “Ladies, we are going to a concrete factory tomorrow, so don’t wear your high heels”, but I shrugged that off.    In high school however when I told my Grade 13 physics teacher that I was planning on going into Engineering, he discouraged me.  I guess I also shrugged that off!

Alison: The challenges I had were in my last year of high school, when I decided I wanted to apply to engineering programs.  I had a disappointing experience with a guidance counsellor, who tried to direct me to other programs.  I also felt unwelcome at one university, during a tour.  But I was determined.  Once I arrived at McMaster, I generally had a great experience, but there were some ridiculous comments over the years, and the misguided opinion of some people, that “girls can’t do math”.

Why did you get into the building industry?

Marianne:   Honestly, by luck.  When I graduated in 1994, the CBO in Hamilton called McMaster University Civil Engineering Department and asked that they send the job description to a few people that might be interested.   The Civil department called me, and a few others, and I was fortunate to be hired.  I knew very little about the Building Regulatory industry before my first day of work.

Alison: I had the good fortune to meet the Chief Building Official of the City of Vaughan at an event where alumni came to speak with 4th year students, and I was really interested in that role.  I went to meet him, later, and he was aware that the City of Hamilton Building Department was hiring.  It was a combination of luck, timing, and being open to possibilities!

 You both worked for a municipality and then went on your own, can you explain this transition and why you chose this path?

Marianne:  I stayed with the City of Hamilton for 13 years, and those years with the City gave me the expertise to work in the specialized consulting field that I do now. There was some upheaval in the Building Department in 2007 and I decided that I wanted to explore other options than government, while continuing to work in this field.   Alison and I had worked together for the first 5 years of our careers, and she was already working in consulting in 2007 so she was my first phone call when I decided to leave Hamilton.

Alison:  When I was first working for the City of Hamilton, I was a building inspector.  I loved that job!  It was challenging, and you never knew what you were going to be faced with.  It was stressful, but I had good support from people I worked with, and I was learning the ropes with Marianne, Joyanne, and another former classmate who started her career with the City of Hamilton, so I wasn’t alone.  I had aspired to one day be a Chief Building Official, but as I was “promoted”, I realized that in a large municipality, the role of a CBO involved human resources, as well as dealing with Council, which did not suit my personality.  When I left to work in consulting, I was returning to the challenges that I enjoyed as a building inspector, which were more technical.

You both volunteer your time with the OBOA. Can you explain what benefits you receive as Members and volunteers? 

Marianne:  My involvement with the OBOA has come full circle.  When I started with Hamilton, Willy Wong who was my manager at the time, was very involved with the OBOA and he spoke of the merits.  I took courses, I attended training sessions and some chapter meetings, but I wasn’t entirely invested.  My involvement became much more significant after I left Hamilton.  Only after leaving the municipality did I fully realize the importance of networking and that in fact all Building officials across our province are experiencing the same issues and can be a great resource for each other.

Alison:  My first involvement with the OBOA was with training courses, and I attended a day of the AMTS in my first year of working, which was a lot of fun!  I attended Chapter meetings and was eventually on the Board of Directors of the Niagara Chapter.  When I left the City I maintained those connections, mostly because I liked the people!  There was also a benefit in having more access to professional development, including code updates, changes in the industry, and challenges, which are often universal.  I still appreciate the access to professional development, and I value the friendships I have developed over the years.

How do you balance career and family life?

Marianne:  We have had a home office since 2011 when Orr Brown was formed.  That has made a big difference to allow me to be available for my family.   My husband also owns a small business so he is understanding from a “work when it is necessary” perspective.  Sometimes we work long and late hours and at other times we take the time needed to balance family life.

Alison:  I will say it’s less of a balance, and more of a teeter-totter for me.  I am usually shifting focus from one to the other.  I would also add “personal” to that list, as a part of my life that also needs attention sometimes.  Awareness and reflection must be ongoing, for me, as nothing goes well when one of those 3 things (career, family, and personal) is neglected for too long.

What advice would you give to women who want to get into the building industry?

Marianne:  My advice is to always ask questions and be willing to listen.  I learned this lesson early when I was responsible to inspect a new school, and I felt out of my comfort zone.  I introduced myself to the site superintendent, and listened and asked questions knowing that he knew far more about construction than I did at the time.  He understood I had a job to do, and we discussed issues in a respectful manner and if there was a question he raised that I couldn’t answer on the spot, I looked it up or called my colleagues, and I ALWAYS got back to him!

Alison:  Education and training are a great foundation.  From there, try to meet people involved in the industry.  Find a mentor, if possible, and connect with your peers, for support.  You don’t need to know everything at the beginning – don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I can find out”.  I still do this, and I have been working in the industry for a “few” years!

More about Marianne and Alison 

Alison and Marianne began their careers as building officials in 1994, with the City of Hamilton, first as building inspectors, then as building engineers.  Alison left the City to join an engineering consulting firm in 1999.  Marianne stayed with the City for 13 years until 2007, in the roles of Chief Building Engineer, and then finally Manager of Building Construction, after which she joined Alison in consulting.

Orr Brown Consulting Engineers Ltd. was incorporated in 2011.  As consultants, Alison and Marianne investigate collapses, failures, and loss of serviceability of buildings, and evaluate buildings damaged by fire, impact, and weather events.  They also review building code and fire code matters, bodily injury incidents, and standard of care of municipal building departments.  They have participated in insurance appraisals, arbitrations, mediations, coroner’s inquests, and trials.

Alison was appointed to the Building Code Commission as a member in 2006, and Vice Chair in 2018 and has participated in numerous hearings. Marianne is presently the Alternate Chair of the Standing Committee for Housing and Small Buildings, which assesses code changes to Part 9 of the National Building Code of Canada.