Lisa Vieau is Chair of the Association of Minnesota Building Officials.
Lisa Vieau’s father was a plasterer. She was just out of high school, working as a supermarket checker, when he told her that his company was starting a drywall operation. “We need minorities. Now is a good time to get in,” he said. She started in their apprenticeship program in 1983. “Once they got the Sheetrock up, I would come in and finish the drywall — taping, second coat, third coat, sanding. I got it ready for painters to come through.” There weren’t classes back then. “I learned everything on the job,” she said.
“When I first got into the trade, this older gentleman was the taping foreman. We were working on a church in Bloomington. The whole top of the sanctuary was scaffolded off — probably four or five stories high. He grabbed a couple boxes of mud — 62 pounds each — and he said, ‘Now you take two and follow me up.’ I carried those two boxes up and when we got to the top, I said, ‘There. I hope I proved my point. Don’t ask me again. We have laborers for that.’”
Although she initially thought the drywall trade was “something I was going to retire at,” she changed her mind after her first child was born. “It’s a lot harder on your body as a woman opposed to a man,” she said. Working winters and trying to get to building sites around the Twin Cities were also challenges. She went back to college and completed a Building Inspection and Technology program.
“St. Michael offered a three-month paid internship. I learned on the job — plan review, simple inspections, footing inspections and that kind of thing,” she said. She got a job in a Twin Cities suburb as a residential combination inspector, doing building, mechanical and plumbing inspections. When the city’s residential plans examiner retired, she moved into that job.
“I love working with homeowners and contractors,” she said. “When you look at a city, you think fire and police. If houses are safe and don’t collapse, thank a code inspector.”
Was there a time when your inspection saved the day?
There was some bad soil in one of the corners of a new addition. At that point, I believe I had a concrete truck waiting to pour the footing. I had to not pass that footing inspection because we had bad soils. They took out the bad organic soil, replaced it with good compactable soil. I averted a possible major problem with sinking one corner of this addition.
Does your drywall background help you as a building official?
You don’t have to have construction knowledge, but it’s helpful. To get state certified you need core classes, then a test.
Is there a demand for building officials?
We are gong to be lacking in qualified people to do inspections — commercial or residential or plan review. We’re looking to see what can we do to get more people involved. A lot of our people come from the trades. We’re going to be really hurting in five to 15 years.
What’s the best part about being a building official?
People call me from all over the state when they have code questions. I get lots of people who call and say, “thank you — you really go over and above.” It’s gratifying to know I’m not looked at as a burden but more of a go-to gal.
Photo Credit: Tom Witta