Bridging Welding and Architecture Careers, CCA Student Vonnie Bower Reaches New Heights
Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2011 by Jim Norrena
Architecture student Vonnie Bower [photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle]
Architecture student Vonnie Bower was recently featured in a San Francisco Chronicle article (“Welder gets her chance of a lifetime on Bay Bridge,” by Edward Guthman) that highlighted the experienced welder and pile driver for her work in the rebuilding of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, a dream-come-true opportunity for countless persons -- male and female alike – in and out of the construction industry.
"Pile drivers build docks, bridges, wharfs, and foundations," explains Bower, "and during my time as such I have built every aspect of a bridge possible. It was my passion to learn and understand every possible component of a bridge and how it relates to the next [bridge construction]."
Doesn't Matter How You Get There
Like many students, Bower dabbled in various interests before discovering her true passion(s). Initially interested in fashion design, she continued to take various courses of interest: ceramics, furniture, and jewelry (to name a few) in an effort to leave no stone unturned -- including eventually taking a stab in construction.
As part of this latter endeavor, to better understand all that was going on around her, Bower eventually took an architecture course in which she "discovered a whole new realm of the building industry."
Welding & Architecture Projects
Welding / Pile-Driving Projects
- Metro Stations (Los Angeles)
- Rand Corporate Building (Santa Monica)
- Cal Trans building in Los Angeles (a Morphosis project)
- Disney Concert Hall (Frank Gehry)
- Alameda Corridor
- BART expansion
- Birth 301 and 400
- I-5 Hwy widening project
Architecture Projects (FMG Architects)
- BART stations (new and remodels, including Ashby, Berryessa, and Warm Springs)
- An evidence storage facility for the district attorney and sheriff department of Santa Clara
Two Careers Are Better than One
Interestingly, Bower admits, “While I do have a passion for architecture, my true passion is welding.” In the Chronicle article, Bower reveals, “I love welding. It's relaxing, just watching the light. When you're welding, you're actually fusing the two pieces together. So you have to direct your arc into both. You're manipulating it; you're going back and forth, ever so slightly.
"It's like weaving. The ability to take two-dimensional materials and create three-dimensional forms is what has interested me in fashion, welding, architecture, ceramics, furniture, and jewelry. They really are all related!"
When One Door Closes . . .
Exceptional physicality is required in most construction-related jobs, which means any physical limitations or restrictions, whether related to age or injury, are a constant threat in this line of work. Now in her forties and having survived traumatic injuries (several years ago she broke both her neck and back while on the job), Bower’s perfectly aware some careers are easier than others to maintain throughout our lives.
The physical demands of welding, let alone welding almost 200 feet above the chilly bay waters, carry with them the inevitable realty that as we age our ability to perform as expertly as we once did becomes compromised. "Once I began working in the field, I knew it would not be a career I could hold for an extended period of time, due to the extreme physical nature of the job."
Due to extensive injuries she sustained, working on the Bay Bridge will be Bower's last welding gig. Yet this has allowed her to focus more on her education in architecture: "I have continued to pursue every aspect of it since."
Strong Enough for a Man, but Made for a Woman
The old adage that behind every man is a great woman is no longer true, at least not in the welding industry.
However, not surprisingly, Bower confirms the majority of welders today, as in the past, are men. Her employer, MCM Construction, has only one other female welder on payroll that she is aware of. “As a woman in the construction industry,” Bower reveals, “you must try to outsmart and outwork everyone around you. This develops a strong work ethic, which I’ve applied toward architecture.”
As to how much support Bower received in her choice of careers: "I'm half American Indian; my dad is Seminole, and there wasn't really gender specificity in our culture. I just wasn't brought up with the stigma of 'Men do this; women do that.' I also grew up with a single dad and two brothers. I was never told I was a girl. And I never did girly stuff. So I never thought of working construction as an [gender] issue."
Her methodology? "I prefer to view my potential as unlimited, regardless of the sometimes limited views of others."
Out with the Old, In with the New
Just how many women are employed in the welding profession? “While the rate of welders in the United States has been shrinking, the number of female welders in the United States has remained steady. In 2006, about 6% of welders were female, which is about the same percentage as reported in 2005 and up slightly from 2004, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“. . . Welding, as in most trades, has long been considered a man’s job, but with a crisis of a welder shortage weighing on the industry, companies are offering better incentives to recruit skilled welders and losing their reluctance to open their doors to females.” (The American Welder, “Welding Offers Women New Career Opportunities,” Adrienne Zalkind and Martha Baker, October 2007)
Next Stop: Bay Bridge
"My very first structural welding job as a welder / pile driver was with a company called OAC Marine (based in the Bay Area, although I worked for them in Los Angeles), whose owner, Oscar, informed me that he was driving test piling for the Bay Bridge with a welding process that he had patented and that he would call me once he began the job.
"Some 10-plus years later, he did! Unfortunately I had just broke my neck and back on a job and was unable to go at that time. I was told that I might not walk -- let alone be able to weld. I spent two years going through physical rehab and a surgery that fused a portion of my neck, restricting movement.
"One thing that helped me through that time was the goal that I would be able to weld on the Bay Bridge as my last welding job and then make the transition toward my next career of becoming an architect – a sort of transition on my time -- and not forced upon me due to an injury."
Slow and Steady Stays the Course
Admittedly, Bower is older than the average undergraduate student at CCA, yet rather than allowing this difference to separate her from the pack, she's using her professional experience to help steer how she contends with challenges within the Architecture curriculum -- she evaluates student solutions from other programs.
"As a 'mature' student I have had quite a bit of real-world experience; however, CCA has taught me to approach a task in several ways, not just the obvious one. Also to look and see how others in other disciplines approach other tasks and see how that could be applied to what I am working on. This cross pollination of disciplines generates interesting ideas and solutions."
Bower is especially interested in learning more about the growing trend of sustainability in architecture. She acknowledges the need to develop more ecological ways of dealing with the excess of waste that exists in the construction process. Learn more about sustainability at CCA »
"Participating in the construction of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge is the mother lode of all bridge projects. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any bridge builder. My personal connection with the Bay Bridge is not based on its location but instead its scale, type (first self-anchoring bridge in California), and the fact that I have spent a significant portion of my life creating structures that enable connections."
When asked for any last-minute pieces of advice she'd like to offer other CCA students, Bowers didn't hesitate for a second: "Try everything and create your own connections."
About CCA's Architecture Program
CCA's five-year, NAAB-accredited professional degree Architecture Program is committed to experiments in alternative models of practice, design, and fabrication. The curriculum accordingly brings developments in culture, media, and technology to bear on the process of architectural production, allowing students to capitalize on new opportunities in a rapidly changing profession. Learn more »
Read SFGate's "Welder gets her chance of a lifetime on Bay Bridge"
- Featured News
- Awards and Accolades
- Career Development
- CCA in the Media
- Center for Art and Public Life
- Community Arts
- Critical Studies
- Curatorial Practice
- Design and Craft
- Design MBA
- Diversity Studies
- ENGAGE at CCA
- Fashion Design
- Fine Arts
- First Year
- Graphic Design
- Individualized Major
- Industrial Design
- Interaction Design
- Interdisciplinary Studies
- Interior Design
- Jewelry Metal Arts
- Office of the President
- Painting Drawing
- Press Releases
- Special Programs
- Undergraduate Admissions
- Visual and Critical Studies
- Visual Studies
- Wattis Institute
- Writing and Literature