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Celebrating Women In Engineering

Updated: Mar 8

Lumen engineering manager Kate de Bruin talks communication, electrical substations, and quantum physics

headshot of kate

I got into engineering because my dad was a metalworker and a carpenter who was always making things. I grew up watching him, wanting to do the same sort of things. Physics and maths were my jam and once I started looking at how buildings are made, I thought, I'll study engineering and do that.

While studying at Canterbury University, I did a work placement with a small structural

engineering firm as part of my degree. The owner, John Snook, offered me a job when I

graduated. He was a great mentor who taught me every part of the engineering business,

and being a small firm, I got to do everything.

After several years working with John, Lumen bought his company. Lumen were

transmission line engineers then, but the team wanted to diversify. Now Lumen do structural

engineering, energy, and corrosion protection as well. We’re a much bigger firm with about

50 engineering consultants in different fields.

20 years is a long time to work in one career, but I never get to the point where I feel I know

it all and it's rinse and repeat. There's always something different, new products, new

guidelines. I’m learning every day.

The importance of communication to keep things on track

I stayed on at Lumen after the merger, moved up and started managing the civil and

structural team. We’re employee-owned, so I’m also a part owner of the business. We

engineer a lot of commercial and industrial buildings, such as the Silky Otter Cinema in

Wigram, the new Torpedo7 building in Tower Junction, and warehouses across the city.

Residential design is another strand of work. Many houses don't need much engineering, but

architectural homes on the hills are the exception.

Working on developments involves a lot of communication. Whenever anything goes wrong,

it's because of a communication breakdown. So, my job is to make sure everyone’s on

board with the direction of a project. It's a lot of talking to architects, contractors, specialists

like fire engineers and geotechnical engineers, and of course, our client.

Everyone's got slightly different priorities. We want buildings to be strong, architects want

buildings to be aesthetically satisfying, contractors want them to be easy to build, and our

clients want them to be affordable. I have to find a balance that keeps everyone happy.

We've also started designing electrical substations and it's really interesting working with

electrical engineers to understand all the requirements of handling high voltage power lines.

Substations aren’t your standard building project. There are a lot of additional regulations

and utilities are very particular about how things are done. We need to make sure the

substation doesn't fail, no matter what’s thrown at it. Again, communication is key.

a building from drone height
Torpedo 7, Tower Junction

Strengthening buildings to handle earthquakes

We've done a lot of building strengthening since the Canterbury earthquakes. It's interesting

work because existing buildings are never straightforward. You don’t know what you're going

to find. Strengthening the Milton Street Substation sticks in my mind as a memorable project,

an old 1928 art deco brick substation with concrete columns.

Engineering requirements have changed since the quakes. We definitely design foundations

to be more robust. A lot of guidelines deal with liquefaction because we saw what it can do

to buildings. We’re not geotechnical engineers, but we still do soil testing to understand the

ground conditions and how much geotech involvement we need.

Ultimately, we design to make sure a building doesn't hurt anyone in a severe quake. When I

assess a building for earthquake strengthening, I ask myself, would I let my kids go in? It

feels good knowing we're strengthening buildings so when the next earthquake comes

hopefully we can prevent loss of life.

a substation
Milton Street Substation

Doing the hard yards to earn clients’ trust

There's less trust in engineers since the earthquakes. Now there's a lot more scrutiny, which

is a good thing because everyone makes mistakes. Being chartered professional engineers

is about making sure we take responsibility for the quality of our work.

Becoming a chartered engineer 12 years ago was a big milestone for me. You commit to

doing at least 40 hours of professional development a year and you also have to prove to

Engineering New Zealand that you’ve got the technical expertise and ethics society needs from

engineers. You have to demonstrate you’ve met those standards over a variety of projects,

and you have to get recertified every five years. So, it's a bit of a process, but it does mean

something having chartered engineer next to your name.

Lumen has also undergone ISO accreditation and our procedures are audited once a year

by an external auditor. We show all our calculations and prove that they've been checked

and met the right quality control standards. It’s more paperwork, but better results.

We like to try to accommodate clients’ and contractors’ preferences wherever we can.

Engineers can have a bit of a reputation for being aloof, but it doesn't have to be our way or

the highway. There’s almost always more than one right way. It takes a bit more effort going

back and forth and incorporating any changes, but that's what keeps people coming back.

a building pictured from a drone
Silky Otter, Wigram

The challenges of being a women in a male dominated field

Going through uni, only 10% of the people on my course were women. For a long time, I was

the only female engineer at Lumen. There are more of us now, but women being in the

minority is pretty common in engineering firms.

There have been a few challenges being female in a male dominated field. There were times

I'd turn up on a building site as project manager with a junior male engineer and people

would talk to my colleague and ignore me or even ask me to make the coffee, I’d have to say, “Actually, I'm the lead engineer. You’re talking to me.” It comes down to expectations.

Builders and tradies expect to be dealing with a male most of the time. But that is changing.

I’d like to encourage more women to go into engineering. If you're into physics and maths,

engineering is a degree that leads to a well-paid career. And that’s not going to change. We

need more engineers and firms are keen to hire women engineers as it helps bring diverse

perspectives into the male dominated fields of engineering and construction. Engineering is

also a great field to work in. You can be a positive role model for young woman pursuing

careers in STEM or help mentor the next generation of women in engineering, all while

making a difference in the world and being creative.

I love that I do something with tangible outcomes. I annoy my kids endlessly by driving

around Christchurch saying, I helped design that building and that building and that one too.

It feels good. It reminds me of being little and my dad saying, I helped build that. Dad and I

have been known to compete to point out all of the buildings we’ve worked on.

Lover of lists, efficiency, and a good escapist yarn

I was born and bred in Christchurch and I'm married with three boys aged between 12 and

16. Working full time and raising three kids is pretty much my life, but Lumen’s flexible

working conditions really help with this. My kids are all very active, so they're always eating

and I'm always baking muffins, slices, biscuits, and bread. We live up the hill in Huntsbury,

with a view of the tree tops. It's good for biking and I bike to work. It's quicker than driving most days. Taking my black lab for walks is another important part of my life. She comes to the office once a week.

a black labrador curled up in a bed too small
Lola, my black lab trying to squeeze into her brothers bed

I like to get up and get my life organised by making a list first thing. I've even been known to

make lists of things I need to make lists for. My favourite days are when I've achieved what I

set out to achieve and I can cross it off my list, sit down, and enjoy my glass of wine. I read

novels to escape, and I enjoy K-dramas, South Korean TV series. I’m not exactly sure why,

but I just can't get enough of them, especially the legal ones.

I'm also into quantum physics. I don't fully understand it but I love watching documentaries about it because it puts life in perspective. It makes everything I worry about seem really small, and that helps ground me. I’m a bit fanatical. I hate waste. I like efficiency. And that's a principle at Lumen as well. We borrow the world from our kids, they're the ones who have to deal with the mess we leave behind. So, when I do an efficient design that saves energy and materials, it's my tiny part of making the world a better place.

A picture of kate and her family on vacation
My family and I


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