Women in the "Making" // Wendy Lai
The typical visual you might have when someone mentions welding is probably not a 5’ 3” female welding in a grungy shop but instead, a guy wielding a gun with thick gloves, heavy duty jacket, and a black mask with sparks flying everywhere. After all, metal fabrication has always been a male dominated field. So, it was no surprise to me that people had a perplexed look on their faces when I tell them that I am welding for my architecture studio thesis project. It never fails to entertain the person I am explaining my tasks to— mainly because they don’t believe me. Although it mildly irritates me, I fully understand this stereotyping. Females are underrepresented in the work field and it’s time to prove that we are just as competent and valuable as any male. Fortunately, the Design + Make Studio afforded me the opportunity to explore, learn, and excel as a novice welder.
I remember my first time stepping foot into the metal shop at the APDesign College about to receive a safety course on working with metal; I was nervous and intimidated but highly intrigued. Shaun Troyer, shop manager for the IAPD department with over 20 years of welding experience, gave us the rundown of the basic survival tips while working in the shop which included: how to not to lose your fingers, smash your toes, or flash burn your eyes with the welder. Shaun is a no-nonsense type of guy and I am certain that when he first saw me he probably didn’t think I’d be back, let alone spending endless hours of hard work grinding, cutting, and welding in the shop– I just don’t look like that type.
The first time we practiced welding I was scared out of my mind. I was sweating profusely as I entertained many options to getting out of it. Had it not been for the fact that I had taken up the position of ‘Prototype Manager’ for the Alma City Park + Pool project, the loud popping and crackling noises may have almost convinced that welding wasn’t for me— I had a specific responsibility that my team was counting on so I had to step up to the challenge. Besides, I have always enjoyed making things with my hands and appreciated great craftsmanship, so, I couldn’t pass on this opportunity.
When the Alma City Park + Pool officially got the green light, I was ecstatic and petrified at the same time. There was just a short amount of time to refine my welding skills and to demonstrate to Shaun competency and efficiency in structural steel welding. Ultimately, I was out there to prove to myself that I can overcome personal fears and stereotypes. Also, it was an important aspect to personally experience the “Making” in the “Design + Make” process. Equipped with a set of construction documents and detail drawings, I was amazed by the steep learning curve that we encountered through prototyping. The level of detail, coordination, and logistics of putting together a design is more complicated and intricate than I have ever anticipated. The first couple of rounds of mock-ups gave us a new understanding as well as informing us about detail drawings. From connection detail to accounting space of weld beads, the making process helped me realize the importance of accuracy in construction document drawings as well as fabrication itself.
After weeks of final welding, coordinating, planning and countless painful setbacks, I have a whole new appreciation for metal fabricators and shop workers in general. “Making”, or in this case, welding, requires a tremendous amount of (physical) hard work, focus, dedication, patience, and attention to detail. Although I am still very new at welding, I am very proud of the beads I laid for the Alma Pavilion. A great weld requires multiple proficiencies such as artistic and spatial skills, hand-eye coordination, and a temperament for precise work. There’s such a deep satisfaction and value in making something by hand that I intend to explore and expand on throughout my professional career. An important aspect I took away from the ‘making’ process is that at the end of the day, a great weld knows no gender.
Written by Wendy Lai