Interview with Carey Lien of Athena Construction

Interview with Carey Lien of Athena Construction 2/13/14
What’s the name of your business and can you tell me a little bit about the story behind it?
CL: Well, (laughs) I was talking with my therapist and I was trying to think of a name for my construction company and it used to be ‘Hammer in Her Hand’ and it seemed just a little too violent, like people would see me coming after them with an acutal hammer in my hand. So, I decided to use the name of a goddess as the name because Athena is a woman who goes to war WITH the men and plays in their world. And I thought that was really a good name for a construction company as I mostly work with men and I want to be at the same level as them and want the same level of equality.
LD: Nice, so in a way your company’s name is a metaphor for equality?
CL: Yes.
She is also always seen in armor and ready for battle which I also thought was interesting.
LD: How long have you been a builder?
CL: 10 years.
LD: How did you get started?
CL: How did I get started… I was an environmental studies major and when I finished college I really wanted to be good at all the basic things you need to survive. I was a cook for 6 months and then got offered a job to be a builder and I really wanted to build my own house someday. So that was my big drive. I really wanted to both build my own house and be sustainable.
LD: Given that there is conventional building and Natural Building, what attracted you to Natural Building?
CL: I was working in Minnesota for a conventional builder and I really didn’t like the materials that we were using and that we were really just building houses for very wealthy people and it wasn’t really having a positive impact on the world other than making some person more wealthy. It just didn’t feel good to me. I remember I would go to the library in Ely before I had a computer and I researched natural building and found that it was more aligned with my…I don’t want to use the word idealism, but it was more aligned with what I felt was important in the world like social justice and doing what was environmentally friendly.
I felt that Natural building was the best way to use resources wisely and still provide necessary shelter.
LD: What was your first Natural Building project?
CL: I showed up at Coenraad Rogmans house and took his apprenticeship. I got there early and mixed my first batch of cob and I was in love with mixing mud with my feet for the first time!
LD: What made you fall in love with it?
CL: For one, I was on the West coast for the first time and everyone seemed really happy and it was also the first time I was in a culture with people where people shared my ideals.
LD it was the culture more than the mud?
CL: It was the culture, the people, what they belived in, how they were living their life. They were truly living a life as sustainable as you can be living in the North America.
LD: would you say the cob was symbolic of this or was it something about the material it’s self?
CL: It was that and the material. How amazing is it to be building and not being wearing shoes like you are doing something really good for your body while you are building as opposed to conventional construction which can feel like you are abusing your body. It just really shifted the conventional paradigm of building on its head for me and showed me a completely different way of building from what I had learned. It felt really good instead of feeling like I was going against something in side myself. Conventional construction always felt difficult and this just felt good.
It also challenged that notion of being exploited while working on a conventional job. In Minnesota I knew that someone was making money off of my labor and with cob I did not feel like that.
The other thing about conventional is that people where building things without any foresight. For example, I was building log cabins in Minnesota which is a super cold climate and these buildings weren’t very insulative. They just weren’t thinking long term and on another level the people who were buying the houses didn’t have to because they were very wealthy. There was this big disconnect.
They were more concerned with what looked good or made them look good, they weren’t looking at the whole picture they were more focused on they’re individual comforts and the conventional buildings were more a reflection of this. Cob and Natural Building was just the opposite.

LD : What was one of your favorite projects to work on?
CL: In the past 10 years? There’s too many!
LD: How about the top 3!
CL: The first that comes to mind is during the VBC. The Sabin Green project was one of my favorites because it was working in a community context to build a quest house that I knew people would really be staying in. Iwas a whimsical design that had a lot of creative carpentry aspects to it and it was during the VBC so I got to meet a lot of people and introduce them to natural building techniques. It was really fun and sometimes you cob in your underwear or dresses and you don’t see that on a conventional job site very often!
LD Just on the calendars! Was that project your favorite style of building too?
CL Yes. my favorite is Light straw clay, because it mixes carpentry and natural building.
I really like it with just standard framing. I really like framing. Light straw clay is great because more people can be involved and its light, unlike cob which is really heavy. More people can be involved because you can mix it standing at a table instead of being hunched or bent over a tarp. So people with back problems or people who aren’t in good health can still engage in the building process. Straw clay mixes my two favorite things carpentry and NB
LD: What project was the most challenging for you?
CL ;(Laughs)
LD: Or maybe what challenges you the most in building?
CL: ( more laughter) Are we doing therapy here? The thing about NB or each project is there is always something about each one that is challenging. Actually, when I think about there are only a handful of days where I thought to myself “That went really well!” Something always happens to change the plans. You never really know what you are getting in to. It is really dynamic. It’s a constant challenge because you generally get jobs that are just above your level so you are always learning. Which is great to be learning, but it is also difficult at times. So, even after 10 years of experience I am constantly exposed to new challenges. I think the first two years of building were the most challenging. Not one project in particular.
LD: Any other challenging aspects?
CL: The projects that are the hardest are the ones that are really long. 9 month long projects are so long, they are like giving birth! I don’t know what it is about those!
LD: it sounds like they all have a challenging aspect or two or twenty!
CL: That’s the thing! In order to be a builder you have to like being challenged or being challenged. You have to like puzzles as it’s just one puzzle after another in building.
LD: Well said! Has it been a challenge for you being a woman in construction?
CL: How do I say this? First of all we live in a patriarchy. Men are instantly given more power on a jobsite even if they don’t know anything or have less experience than a woman. That’s the first challenge that generally exists on every single job.
However there are some good things: my presence as a woman on a jobsite is helpful as it is calming for people. In some ways it is reverse sexism as people like having a woman working on their house. One situation where being a woman was an asset was being placed on a job where there was a real hot head on the job and he routinely yelled at other people (all men), but in my presence he was totally different. I was a woman and didn’t want to offend me. He told me he wished there were more women on jobsites.
The down sides are: the people hitting on me. But the biggest is that generally women have a harder time asking for what they are worth and receiving it. I have been too giving of my own time and my ability. In the trades you really have to stick up for yourself and ask for what you need. Because of the way the system works employers are always looking for cheaper labor. It’s kinda like the Wild West if you are not a union worker. It’s just a free for all with wages.
Its’ really hard as a woman to negotiate wages given the over arching patriarchal influences. I just had the experience of getting paid $4 less an hour than someone I was supposed to be the supervisor of!
LD: WOW that is a stark contrast! With that being said, what advice do you have for aspiring builders?
CL: The one thing that is really coming up for me lately is about ‘being nice’. I am from Minnesota and I was raised to not ruffle feathers, but I feel like I would have gotten further if I had kept asking question even though it takes time away from other people in stead of just doing what you are told. Just really asking questions and learning more would be something to challenge yourself with. Ask lots of questions! And do NOT let anybody take a tool out of your hand. I have had this happen recently when there is a time crunch and the person I am working with wants to just do a particular part that I would benefit learning how to do. I had to stand up for myself and justify that if I learn it now then we are both better off. The thing with construction is there is always pressure to go fast and it might seem faster in the moment to let someone do something because they are faster but if you don’t take the opportunity to learn it you wont have a chance to get good at it.
LD: Good advice!
CL: Since you are teaching and there is the upcoming workshop: what do you enjoy most about teaching?
CL I really enjoy teaching because the underlying reason I am a builder is that I really want to help other women feel empowered in whatever way I can help. Teaching women to learn how to use power tools and do carpentry is just another avenue for women being self empowered and having more confidence to do what ever they want to do in the world!!!!