Beyond her day job, Helen Trappitt uses her structural engineering expertise to help create large-scale sculptures as part of the ongoing Christchurch rebuild and is working to increase the number of women in engineering.

Why did you decide to become an engineer?

As a teenager, I enjoyed maths, science and geography at school and in my spare time I was either outdoors skiing or playing sport, or at home making weird furniture/art installations for my room. The idea of a career where I could eventually apply my favourite school subjects to design large-scale structures was exciting and seemed like a perfect fit.

What are your main focuses in your role?

I’m overseeing a number of seismic strengthening design projects in central Christchurch. Three of these are heritage buildings we strengthened just over 10 years ago that came through the Canterbury earthquake sequence well, so we are strengthening them for a second time to an even higher level. Another focus is running our sculpture division where we do pro-bono work to help local creative groups such as SCAPE Public Art, CoCA, Gap Filler and FESTA.

How did the Canterbury earthquakes impact on the way you approach your work?

The Canterbury earthquakes were something we had been preparing for all our careers, but when they happened it was surreal. Seeing the demolition of approximately 80 percent of the CBD has had a profound effect on me. That, coupled with my work on residential insurance claims, where I have met many people suffering, often unnecessarily, motivated me to use my engineering skills to give back to the city. In 2012, I approached sculptor Neil Dawson CNZM about designing a sculpture for Christchurch. Together we arranged for nearly all aspects of “Spires”, based on the lost spire of Christ Church Cathedral and currently installed in Latimer Square, to be carried out in kind. Lewis Bradford did the structural design and 20 other companies contributed services or materials.

What are the key engineering challenges now for Christchurch, following the earthquakes?

The biggest engineering challenge I see now is a national one – it’s vital the rest of the country learns from what Canterbury has been through and implements pragmatic seismic strengthening measures to at-risk buildings in a timely manner. With the sophisticated state of modern analysis and construction techniques, the solutions are relatively simple. You could say that the engineering is the easy part. This is a political and economic issue, but engineers are very well placed to educate building owners and the public about the process.

Who or what has had the most influence on the success of your career to date?

Excellent training at Canterbury University and the opportunities I have received at Lewis Bradford. My parents have also had a big influence on my success, encouraging academic excellence and displaying a tenacious work ethic. My late father advocated “girls can do anything” and fostered my sisters’ and my curiosity by bringing home books on all sorts of topics.

Why is championing women in engineering important to you?

I have enjoyed being an engineer, but essentially, I stumbled upon it as an option in a brochure in a careers advisor’s office. I hate to think capable young women are missing out due to a lack of awareness of engineering as a career path. I see it as my responsibility as a Director of an engineering firm to be vocal about pressing issues, such as the number of women leaving engineering within 10 years and the significant gender pay gap.

What are some of the ways you help raise the profession’s profile for females?

I have spoken at a number of schools about engineering as a career and I am a mentor. I have also set up a scholarship for female engineering students at Canterbury University. One reason I’ve done so is because when I was one of 10 direct-entry Civil students in 1997, half were female and half were male, but in 2017 there were 10 direct entry students and they were all male. 

What are the main barriers to more females choosing to study engineering?

The small number of women they can see in very senior roles in the sector. When I was at engineering school a lot of my fellow students had either a father or an uncle who was an engineer. Wouldn’t it be great if they had mothers and aunties who were engineers too?