Saturday, January 31, 2009 7:00 AM
Amy Fetters, left, senior project manager for Weitz Iowa, and Sherry Stewart, director of design, construction and property management for Iowa Health – Des Moines, have a close relationship as two women in construction. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Sherry Stewart and Amy Fetters remember a time when they would walk onto a job site and be called "Honey." Early in their careers, they both were called out by men and taught the difference between concrete and cement. And yet these two women have remained steadfast in their chosen professions, building up to leading the construction of Iowa Health - Des Moines' new West Hospital.
"In fact, I requested Amy," said Stewart, who is the director of design, construction and property management for Iowa Health. "She's detail-oriented, she stays on top of everything, she does great follow-through, and although we have our challenges, we do work well together. I can trust her to tell me the truth."
"When you work with (Sherry), you can start to figure out what she's going to ask," said Fetters, senior project manager for Weitz Iowa, the general contractor on the West Hospital project. "She's very demanding, but she also makes sure you're doing the best job possible, and I like that she pushes the envelope. Sometimes it might feel stressful at the time, but it always provides a challenge to me, and I think she provides a lot of challenges and allows me to basically grow into the position that I've been able to grow into."
This relationship has allowed the two women to work closely together to ensure that the complicated project will be completed on a tight deadline. It has fostered a team atmosphere among the parties involved and aided in implementing some cutting-edge construction techniques. And it has evoked a huge sense of pride in Stewart and Fetters, who both agree they feel more like team members than women in a field dominated by men.
"Maybe it's there," Fetters said. "I'm just blind to it."
Laying the foundation
Stewart fell into construction after graduating from Iowa State University with a degree in psychology (which still "helps me deal with architects, engineers and contractors," she said with a laugh). She joined Iowa Health in 1977 and worked in a variety of roles, including administrative services coordinator, where she handled some of the hospital group's remodeling projects before it had a dedicated construction and property management division. During this time, she also obtained a master's degree in public administration. Then in 1990, she was offered a chance to become a project manager for Iowa Health and has stayed in construction since.
The learning curve was huge. "I have to admit in the early days it was actually the people in construction that taught me," she said. "I asked a lot of questions and learned in the field."
One of her earliest memories was a male project manager who took her aside after a meeting to explain that she had used the word "cement" incorrectly. Now her knowledge base has expanded to include not just construction, but also structural, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering and architecture.
Fetters actually majored in construction engineering at Iowa State and has worked full time for Weitz since graduating in 1996. During an internship that involved surveying work for the city of Council Bluffs, the female engineer Fetters worked under gave her some good advice when Fetters looked nervous about an assignment to inspect concrete work a road crew had just completed. The engineer told her that if she did not understand something, she should ask questions, because in her experience, men tend to be more willing to help if a female inspector doesn't act as if she knows everything.
"I took that to heart and I kind of used that as my basis throughout my career," Fetters said. "If I don't know something, I don't pretend to know it; I ask questions. And they might laugh at you under their breath, but normally they answer your question and let you know, and you're going to learn at the same time."
Fetters is the first female in the Weitz Iowa division to rise to senior project manager. The second full-time project she was assigned to was Iowa Methodist Medical Center's obstetrics/gynecology addition, where she met Stewart at the tail end of the job.
The 'capstone' project
Fetters calls West Hospital her "capstone" project, because it integrates her experience working on several health-care renovation and interior projects and new office buildings. Stewart said she has been building up to this as well after working on hundreds of other Iowa Health projects, including the Iowa Lutheran Hospital emergency room and the John Stoddard adult oncology unit.
"It's a chance of a lifetime to build a hospital and obviously the only one I will build, so the opportunity is extraordinary," Stewart said.
Because the two women had already worked together on several projects before, "I kind of have an understanding what (Sherry's) expectations are," Fetters said, which have been especially demanding on the schedule side. Fetters said it took a while to agree on a schedule that met Stewart's desire to complete the hospital quickly and Weitz's ability to meet that deadline.
"My job is always to push," Stewart said, laughing along with Fetters. "But the truth is both of us are strong women, and you have to be to be in this field."
To make this fast-paced timeline work, Weitz has implemented some new techniques, such as the Last Planner System and Building Information Modeling. Fetters has taken a lead role at Weitz Iowa in learning these new lean principles and implementing them company-wide and also has attained her professional accreditation in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design during the project.
"This has kind of been the role-model project," Fetters said. "We're going to take a lot of what our team has been doing out here, and it's just going to be the way that Weitz is going to do business."
The hospital project presents other unique challenges for the two women. With a focus on creating a safe and healing environment, Stewart has pushed for features such as making sure sheet vinyl is level with bathroom tiles to reduce falls. They also have had to deal with duplicate equipment to ensure that the hospital never loses heat, Internet access and other vital systems, and changes in regulations have caused adjustments to construction.
With the owner and contractor representatives having a close relationship, it has helped foster a team spirit throughout the job site. Working in side-by-side trailers at the construction site, Fetters or other Weitz crew members and Stewart are often going back and forth to ask questions or confirm plans, schedules and budgets. Stewart reviews all submittals and drawings, selects most of the interior designs and is constantly researching new regulations or technology.
Just like one of them
Twenty years ago, Stewart said, she was more aware of her gender when she walked onto a job site. Today, "we're always a little surprised when someone says something about two women in an industry that's primarily male-dominated, because we just don't sense it," she said.
"And we don't really focus on it," Fetters added, looking over at Stewart.
Still, they both admit they have some traits that have served them well: being proactive, extremely organized, detail-oriented, creative and, of course, inclined to ask a lot of questions.
"Sherry is organized, she's experienced and she is hard-working, dedicated and she is one of these people that it's more than just a job," said Sid Ramsey, vice president for marketing and business development at Iowa Health. "It really is about the mission."
Though he did not find it odd that Stewart was assigned to lead the West Hospital project, he does remember sitting in the first construction meeting and realizing that having two women in charge is likely unique in the industry. But, he said, their relationship "really exemplifies the larger relationship that I see on this entire project in terms of mutual respect, professionalism and collaboration."
Mike Tousley, president of Weitz Iowa, described Fetters as perfect for the job because of her relationship with Stewart and her experience in health-care construction.
He added, "She's always one that's been driven, always loves a challenge and always is willing to accept more responsibility, and every single time she delivers.
"She pours her heart and soul into every project."
Fetters and Stewart have taken an active role in mentoring others in the construction field as well. Stewart manages two other people - who happen to be women - in her department, and Fetters has helped educate a couple of men on the job site who are interested in focusing on health-care construction.
After this project, Fetters said she hopes to stay involved in future Weitz health-care projects. Stewart will return to her downtown office and start working on other building renovations and construction projects.
"Part of what I enjoy about the industry is the variety is vast as well as there's a beginning, middle and end to these jobs. ... I need to see the outcome," Stewart said.
"Every project is a little bit different," Fetters said, "but there are aspects you can learn from every project, and basically you can take that knowledge to the next project and use some of that experience and help build momentum."