For more than a decade, Barbara Biernat, owner of Barbara B Builder LLC, has broken ground in the male-dominated construction industry.
The Crown Point resident, who is president of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) Chapter 311, hopes to pave the way for future generations of women in her field.
“The greatest endeavor is creating a place for women in this industry so that our granddaughters can say, ‘My grandma built that’ and not have the statement generate surprise,” Biernat says.
Biernat describes her age as 64 and one half years young.
“Kids always include the one-half as it gives them more credibility in the grown up world,” Biernat says. “I am still striving for that distinction.”
Biernat chose her construction career later in life when she was “40 and a half” and mother of five teenagers.
“I started out in interior design in my 20's but found it limiting,” Biernat says. “Sometimes making homes look and function better has to start with a sledge hammer; window treatments won't do the job. I heard about the degree programs at Purdue and saved enough money to complete a two-year architectural degree. After the first semester I was on full-ride scholarship so decided to continue with the full four-year degree.”
Biernat, who was named the 1995 Department of Construction Technology Outstanding Senior, was the sole female graduate in her field at Purdue University Calumet.
After graduation she worked in commercial and industrial construction for a large 50-year old Hammond firm.
“To comply with a hiring freeze enforced by a bonding company, I was let go after nine months of very good work so they could hire a man to fill a field position,” Biernat says. “I was told it was in my best interests – they were just looking out for me because the field was no place for a woman. That company went out of business three years later. At the time I was working exclusively in the field as a site superintendent building hotels.”
After completing $100,000.000 in construction for various firms all over the Midwest, always in the field, Biernat began working for a woman-owned high-end residential remodeler in Chicago on projects which were often featured in design magazines.
“I developed a skill for unique solutions to construction and design problems where imagination and creativity were encouraged,” Biernat says. “The owner of this company retired and sold her interest and I started my own company that same year.”
A licensed general contractor in Lake and Porter counties, Biernat enjoys working for clients who want something creative or unique or who are open to an unusual application of materials. A favorite for her is building for children including their bedrooms or play spaces – “anything imaginative.”
“My business tag line is ‘Creating Joyous Space,’” Biernat says. “I believe the process as well as the outcome should be joyous. Getting a new kitchen or bathroom is something that is anticipated like Christmas for grown-ups,” Biernat says. “It should include joy.”
Biernat says she and her husband Frank who is her painter, have the best clients.
“Many trust our work at the first meeting,” Biernat says. “We have had potential clients come to our home and, after a quick tour, tell us to do whatever we want in their homes. They are sure they will like it. We completed a few small projects for a couple in Munster and then spent six weeks in their luxury condo in Phoenix painting and doing whatever we wanted and they loved it.”
Biernat finds her work both interesting and satisfying.
“Every day on every job I've found that my training and experience leave me confident as to what to do or confident that I can find the answers,” Biernat says. “I've also found the men in the field to be wonderful teachers, coaches and co-workers sharing a common goal. I suppose the biggest challenge is my continued disbelief that women in this industry are somehow a threat to some men. It always catches me by surprise when I encounter fear-based hostility from a male in a superior position.”
The biggest challenged in construction is communication and organization, two areas where women excel, Biernat says, and two of the most difficult exchanges between men and women.
“I found that when a problem was presented to a group of us, me being the lone female, my solution was never based in the past,” Biernat says. “I approached problems with a beginner’s mind and produced unique outcomes – occasionally brilliant outcomes. I also found that my solution was often not understood. The response I would get from my peers indicated that since they didn't understand my solution, it must mean that I didn't understand the problem.”
Another special issue, though it may not be only for women, Biernat says, is the thinking that construction is a young man’s job.
“That may be true for some trades but I didn't expect to encounter age discrimination in my early 50's,” Biernat says.
A 2013 Influential Women of Northwest Indiana finalist, Biernat has been an active NAWIC board member for 19 years, holding every office multiple times and chairing multiple committees. She has received awards on the local and regional levels and represented her chapter at regional and national conferences. For 15 years, Biernat has emceed the “Block Kids” building competition.
Biernat believes in giving back to her community. A board member of the Rebuilding Together Valparaiso affiliate since 2008, she has assisted with Build Day in 2008 as a house captain and is actively involved with the house selection committee reviewing applications, conducting homeowner interviews and overseeing project completion of three or four homes. Biernat also assists Lake County Rebuilding She participated in efforts to rebuild Joplin, Missouri through a week-long mission trip and participated in the Habitat for Humanity Blitz Build in Henryville, Indiana. Biernat was also a participant in the Habitat for Humanity new model home and corporate Gary office building projects. She served as the lead carpenter to build the proscenium surround for the Our Lady of the New Millennium Statue in St. John. She has installed several dozen bunk beds in Gary apartments for the formerly homeless for Sojourner Truth House. In addition to serving as a guest lecturer in Gary for construction training to prepare disadvantaged women for apprenticeship, Biernat promotes the NAWIC vision through school career days and campus visits.
Biernat’s advice to others wanting to start a business is to find mentors and determine if you want to work on your business or in your business.
“Fear wastes years,” Biernat says. “It's all a game, play well with others, but remember to play full out.”