Eliza Horstman, 32, is a big believer in gaining experience in all aspects of construction, and she has her mentors to thank for that approach.
Horstman recently celebrated 10 years with Lendlease in New York, and is currently a project manager for the construction and development giant.
After throwing herself into structural building at the start of her career as a superintendent for three years, she pivoted to managing the interior of a massive project as a project manager, spending more time in the office.
We talked with Horstman about how she climbed the ranks with the help of mentors, as well as her efforts to pay it forward and encourage the next generation of construction leaders.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get into the construction industry?
HORSTMAN: I always knew I wanted to be in the industry, but construction was kind of a secondary thought. When I was young, I wanted to be an architect. I loved looking at drawings. When I was in high school, I tried taking some art and physics classes and realized that maybe going to school for engineering was my preference. I came to Columbia University and majored in civil engineering. There were a handful of construction-related courses, and I found I liked those best. I ended up with an internship at Lendlease between my junior and senior year, and started full-time right after graduation.
What does your typical day look like?
HORSTMAN: I’m in charge of the interior of a lab building. I’m responsible for the drywall, paint and millwork contracts, so most of my days revolve around meeting with those trades. I spend probably a third to half of my day on site, and the rest of my time in the office working on change orders, having those meetings, talking on the phone, reviewing drawings.
Do you prefer the site work or the office?
HORSTMAN: When I started as an intern and then when I started full-time as a project superintendent, I was on site full-time. My manager said, "You should do that for a while, then try project management for a while." So I went from being a site superintendent for a few years to being a structural project manager. Now I’m doing the exact opposite of that with interiors. I’ve gotten to see all of it. What I like about project management is that I get to do a little bit of both. I get to go outside and see [the project]. But I also get to sit and review drawings and write change orders and contracts. I have the best of both worlds.
What project are you most proud of?
HORSTMAN: For the last five years, I’ve been working on Columbia University’s Manhattanville expansion, and it’s been tremendous. We have a fabulous team up here, and we get to work with the architect Renzo Piano. The building we’re in is something that I will probably never see again. It’s a high-end, museum-quality lab. It’s also a giant project because our company demolished several square blocks in Manhattan. You don’t get to do this all the time in Manhattan, so it’s pretty special. It’s also my alma mater, which is kind of thrilling for me to come back and work for them.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced throughout your career?
HORSTMAN: Starting out, having the confidence to tell subcontractors and tradespeople what you need them to do, that’s a little hard. You have to develop your own confidence. Usually starting out of school, the tradespeople and the owners of the subcontractors are easily double your age. So you have to work pretty hard to gain enough knowledge of what the guys do outside all day long, how they run jobs. You have to be willing to learn from them.
As a woman in the industry, do you think you’ve had a different experience than if you were a man?
HORSTMAN: I am sure it’s different, but when I’m in the day-to-day throes of doing my job and in the trenches, I don’t notice it. I’m here to do my job, and I work really hard at it. When I take a step back, there are times I realize there are 25 people in the room, and I’m the only [woman]. I work very hard to do a good job and set the right tone for women in the industry.
Even in the 10 years I’ve been in the industry, there are significantly more women in the field being project managers and superintendents than there were 10 years ago. And I think most companies now are more committed to having more women.
Are you involved with any kind of mentoring programs?
HORSTMAN: I have been involved with the Architecture Construction Engineering Mentor Program. It’s not specific to women, but we’ve mentored groups of high school students from the area, and I’m happy to say it’s equally represented by men and women. It’s exciting to see 14-year-old girls wanting to join and do what we do.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the industry as a whole?
HORSTMAN: While it’s changed some, there is definitely still the idea of, "We’ve been building buildings for hundreds of years, we’re going to keep doing it." It’s ripe for innovation. We see that now with things like 3-D modeling, using special software on project sites. But continuing to push that is really important. Innovate or you’re going to lose out. Having younger people enter the industry and encouraging them to come in is important because they’re the ones who know all the new technology. And continuing to push diversity is important.
Why do you think improving diversity is important for a company?
HORSTMAN: If you end up with the same group of people always doing the same thing, nothing’s ever going to get any better. So inviting young people, women, people from different backgrounds, people from different parts of the country, parts of the world, they’re going to bring something new and special to the table. I’ve definitely seen that with mixing the project teams. If you end up with someone new on the project who you haven’t worked with before, you can learn a lot.
How do you think the industry can attract and retain more young people?
HORSTMAN: Continuing outreach programs such as the ACE mentorship, visiting colleges, sharing what we do. It’s a special field, and it’s ripe for innovation and it’s ripe for new people.
I’ve been lucky to have, at multiple points, very hands-on, helpful managers and a couple of mentors, and they have been instrumental in keeping me here. They want to know how is it going, what can we do, what do you want to learn. Keeping the conversation open about what [young people] can add to the industry is important. People do leave, and so you have to retain them. I’m grateful I’ve had all those mentors.
Do you have any other new projects or big plans coming up?
HORSTMAN: The project I’m on is finishing up, so in the next few months we'll all get reassigned somewhere else. It’s kind of thrilling to think what could be out there. I don’t know where I’ll be going next, but hopefully very soon it will be my own project.