Women in Engineering: Helen Trappitt, Lewis Bradford, Christchurch

Why do you do what you do and do you enjoy it?

I currently work in three main areas of structural engineering for different reasons. Seismic strengthening of heritage buildings is satisfying and challenging.  I’m motivated to work on these projects as they are key to getting Christchurch back on its feet.

I have also been involved with complex residential insurance claims following the Canterbury and Kaikoura Earthquakes. This work is not at all glamorous when compared to other structural projects, but it is vitally important to the homeowners who have been in limbo for many years.

My other area of work does not feel like work. I lead a team at Lewis Bradford that help local creative groups with their structural engineering needs, usually pro bono. This ranges from the structural design of large scale permanent sculptures to assisting with the Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA), where the installations conceived by architecture students from around Australia and New Zealand are displayed for one night only.

I enjoy the variety of work I do and in particular the ability engineers have to make a positive impact on society.

Greatest challenges?

The greatest challenges I have faced both professionally and personally occurred in 2011. It was a tough year for any engineer in Christchurch. I learnt that natural disasters don’t stop all the other stuff that happens in life.


Most exciting project worked on?

In 2012 I approached sculptor Neil Dawson about designing a temporary sculpture for Christchurch. This project was exciting as we had no client or budget. The structural design and fabrication was challenging.  We brought together about twenty local companies to donate services and materials ‘in kind’. The resulting work named ‘Spires’ is currently installed in Latimer Square.

Where did you study?

University of Canterbury, School of Engineering BE Civil (Hons) 1997-1999

First work experiences was at……where I……………..

While I was at University I worked as a summer intern at a consultancy in Christchurch. I have recollections of soil tests, bracing schedules, being a survey assistant and data entry.  At that time the firm had only two female technical staff. I was asked if I wanted to have morning tea with the office ladies or the blokes (engineers and surveyors).

Do you recommend this profession for young women?

The profession of engineering is a very broad one with amazing opportunities for young people. I strongly recommend anyone who enjoys maths and science at secondary school consider engineering as a career. If you also have strong communication skills and are a creative problem solver then you will be well placed to succeed.

There is no reason why girls shouldn’t give it a go. Looking at the statistics there is not much evidence of progress on this front yet at senior management level, however there is a great group of women coming through in their twenties and thirties now that I feel will shake things up a bit.

I’ve set up a scholarship for female engineering students at the University of Canterbury and have spoken at a number of girls secondary schools about engineering as a great career choice.

Favourite Book?

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Greatest inspiration?

My family, in particular my grandmothers who are still going strong in their nineties.

Favourite quote?

When Serena Williams was asked if she is “one of the greatest female athletes of all time”. She replied: “I prefer the words “one of the greatest athletes of all time”.

How do relax after a long day?

I’d like to be able to answer that I go to the gym and do yoga or eat organic food, but with four children at home things are fairly hectic until they are asleep. Relaxation tends to consist of either a good book or Netflix and the occasional wine.

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