Women builders see big growth: More opportunities seen in home construction

January 8, 2007

Indianapolis-area women are making their mark in the ownership and management of residential construction businesses, following decades of working behind the scenes.

Women account for 47 percent of privately held firms in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That number is growing, and the greatest growth is in construction. The National Association of Home Builders Women's Council reports that the number of women-owned businesses in the building industry has risen 30 percent since 1997.

"One of the reasons we've seen an increase is that there is a wide variety of opportunities for women in construction," said Bobbi Van Howe, Indianapolis chapter president of the National Association of Women in Construction and a contract administrator for Indianapolis-based Wurster Construction Inc.

Firm ownership might be the most prestigious job in the industry, but women also serve as project managers, tradespeople, civil engineers and architects, Van Howe said. Others serve the industry as lawyers, accountants and insurance executives who specialize in construction.

In 2003, the U.S. construction industry employed 10.1 million workers. According to the NAWC, a group founded in 1953 in Texas, nearly 10 percent were women. The group now has nearly 5,800 members and 200 chapters around the world.

Van Howe's own mother was a charter member of NAWC's Indianapolis chapter.

"I've seen the changes through the years, but the biggest challenge is still getting people to take you seriously, and the biggest reward is when that happens," Van Howe said.

Steve Lains, CEO of the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis and a 16-year veteran in the construction business, said women ownership has increased in both the building and supply side of construction.

"Sixteen years ago, most of the women you saw in ownership were in partnership with their husbands ... ," he said, but companies solely owned by women are becoming more commonplace today. "What I've found is that many women have a strength in custom homes that have a lot of detail."

Like most of the nation, the greater Indianapolis market has seen a drop in homebuilding permit requests. Local permit requests dropped 25 percent from 2005 to 2006.

Lains doesn't expect that to slow the growth of women-owned construction firms.

"I think the market has stabilized and we'll stay pretty much the same in 2007," he said. "What we will see is an increase in the women-, minority- and Hispanic-owned business, and that is because of the changes in the pure demographics of our area."

The builders' association

has 1,200 member firms that represent about 8,000 individuals working in the construction business.

Building a reputation for quality

Ursula David, 54, is a 23-year veteran in the construction business. She owns and operates Ursula David Homes, a residential construction business downtown.

"I started out as a job coordinator for a construction firm and learned all the things not to do," David said. "My first desire was to build a great house and make building a home a good experience for people."

When she opened her business in 1983 she had no onsite experience.

"I hired someone to teach me the ropes, and after a couple of years I was able to oversee the building of a home by myself," she said.

David has built nearly 25 custom homes in the past 13 years in the metro area, including in Herron-Morton Place in Indianapolis and the Village of West Clay in Carmel. Most of the custom homes range from 3,000 square feet to 7,500 square feet. Home prices range from $450,000 to $1 million. "I work totally by myself and sub-contract work, so I have as much business as I would like," she said.

In November, Tom and Karen Clark moved into a home David built in Carmel. "We wanted a modern prairie-school type house and had heard that she did good custom work and could focus on contemporary work," said Tom Clark. "We looked at some homes Ursula built and liked what we saw and we are delighted with our home."

John Mays and Tom Forman had David build their home in Herron-Morton Place in Indianapolis.

"We wanted a historicstyle home and looked at a home Ursula built and just felt an immediate fit with her personality-wise and visionwise," Mays said. "We had some specific ideas on what we wanted, such as a concrete countertop, and she could do that. Her being a woman gave me a comfort level."

The Mays/Forman home has been featured in Indianapolis Monthly and archi tectural and design publications.

Tina Pasquinelli's firm, Pasquinelli & Portrait Homes, specializes in townhomes and condominiums, a sector of home construction that remained strong even as the broader housing market weakened. Pasquinelli is vice president and divisional manager for the Indianapolis offices of her firm, a family owned, Chicago-based company that is one of the largest condominium builders in the Indianapolis area.

"We came to the Indianapolis area about 10 years ago because it is a good market and easily accessible," said Pasquinelli, 51. "We have felt the impact of the market, but not as much as other areas and we've sold more homes this year than in 2005."

The company has built more than 45,000 single-family homes and townhomes nationwide. "Townhomes are one of the fastestgrowing markets," she said. "Most buyers are single women, retired couples or empty nesters, and most are looking for an attractive home with ample space, but without all the work of a single-family home."

Gender still matters

Pasquinelli, who has 20 years of experience in the industry, said gender still plays a role for women in construction.

"It's not a huge problem, but you still have to prove yourself," she said.

Linda Klain, 40, owner of Carmel-based Truebuilt Custom Homes, agrees.

[Being a woman] "isn't a hindrance, but when I first started out people would look at me and ask, 'Where's the builder?' or 'Are you the decorator?'" she said. "Still, everyone is very respectful."

Klain opened her business eight years ago and has about 15 years' experience in the business. Most of her custom-built homes range from $650,000 to $1.2 million. The majority have been built in Carmel.

What she builds, Klain says, are "truly custom homes and each home is different. I build one or two homes at a time."

She built five houses in 2006, each between 6,000 square feet and 7,000 square feet and priced between $500,000 and $1 million.

Louise and Michael Headly moved into a Klain-built home in the Carmel/Westfield area in early December. It was the fifth home the Headlys have had built, and the first time they hired a woman builder.

"Linda had already started to build the home as a spec when we saw it, and we liked the layout and asked her to customize it for us," Louise Headly said. "She changed some styles for us and even canceled some orders because we wanted something different. I think the home does have a 'woman's touch,' such as the location of the shelves in the closet. I just felt in sync with Linda."

Debbie Pittard, owner of Zionsvillebased Sedona Custom Homes, has a background working with computers but has spent the past 15 years building homes. The 52-year-old now operates her own business.

"When I had small children, I started working for my husband's construction business from our home. Then I became the primary owner," Pittard said. "My husband and I still work together in the business. It is wonderful knowing that when I drive by a house that I built, I know it will still be there in 100 years."

Sherry Minkis owns Minkis Homes Inc. in Indianapolis, which is involved in the Fall Creek Place revitalization project. Minkis, who studied chemistry, was also a chiropractor for two clinics before going into construction.

"We build about three different styles of homes: single-family, condominiums and the live/work homes," she said.

The historic combination of having a business on the first floor and living on the second floor is coming back, according to Minkis, 42.

"Entrepreneurs like having a business in the same building as their home," she said. "There are graphic artists, architects and even a title agency in a live/work home. My husband and I have one of our own in this style. It just makes sense to own the business place instead of renting."

The greatest reward to owning a construction business is watching something grow from nothing, she said.

"Fall Creek Place was like Dodge City when we started six years ago, and it has been amazing to watch it and Indianapolis become a better place to live," Minkis said.

Van Howe said successful women in construction have built a reputation for detail work in the custom-home specialty that helps them succeed.

"If you have an interest and love of construction, don't let anything stop you."
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