Podcast Summary: 015 Business Stories with Vanessa Hardwick

Vanessa Hardwick is a Chartered Building Surveyor, she runs her own practice near Cardiff, South Wales and focuses on building surveys, project management, party wall surveys and defect analysis mainly in the residential sectors.

A mum of three, her career started in local authority specialising in fire safety and project management before moving into residential private practice.

Vanessa is one of the rare surveyors who was very intentional in choosing her career and education, unlike many of us who just “fell” into this profession. This is her story.

Dyslexia and Writing Surveying Reports

Vanessa discovered she was dyslexic at the age of 15. Luckily, she got good support and was able to progress through all levels of education and get her degree, despite having difficulties with reading and writing.

“What I’ve learned moving throughout my career, is that if you’ve got the right support, you can overcome obstacles and find your way. I’m not a fan of report writing, but that’s a big part of my job, so I’ve just got to get on with it. I have some days on which I’m a bit slower at writing reports than others, but it hasn’t stopped me. I was able to finish my degree, and I actually failed my dissertation twice, but then I changed it completely and eventually managed to qualify. It just made me more determined,” Vanessa says.

The Advantages of Working With Local Authorities

Vanessa started her career by doing basic surveys for Bristol City Council. Initially, she planned to stay there for only a few months, but it turned into an 11-year working experience.

“I was in a central team,” she explains, “and we had specialist projects, so I was able to work with some really knowledgeable surveyors. It exposed me to PRCs over-cladding jobs, disable extensions, structural issues, party walls etc. It was quite unusual, because when I would speak to other surveyors and say that I’d worked for local authority, there was always a dismissive reaction. But actually, the experience I gained was massive. One of my first projects was a disabled extension for a family, and I had to do all the design work, put the tenders together, do contractor selection, run it on site, and I probably wouldn’t have had that level of exposure if I’d gone into a bigger firm at that age.”

The Responsibility of Fire Risk Assessments

Part of Vanessa’s career at Bristol City Council was getting involved with the fire safety reform when the new legislation came in. We wanted to know how she approached such a big responsibility.

“I remember going to a training course before the legislation came in, and I was just mortified with what we had to do. So I set up a little team with my senior manager. We were responsible for looking at fire risk assessments for hundreds of properties, and then working out what needed to be done to bring them up to compliance. It was a massive task and it was new, but I absolutely loved it. Fire safety is a massive subject. Unfortunately,” Vanessa continues, “a lot of the regulations became clear because of incidents, so we would learn from things that have gone wrong. Knowing when you’re not competent enough, and when you need to have that additional training or employ the right people to get a project done safely, is very important.

There is an element of fear, but sometimes you have to face those fears as well. We are experienced surveyors and the public relies on that. So yes, it is scary sometimes to put yourself out there, but then you only grow as a surveyor and as a person. A lot of this is about having that fine balance between confidence and competency.”

Why Project Management Attracts Women Surveyors

A lot of women bring an element of project management to the work that they do, and Vanessa does it as well.

“We as women tend to have a slightly softer way of dealing with things. I get two typical reactions on site; either it’s ‘here’s another lady who thinks she knows everything,’ or they would be on their best behaviour. I’ve always asked questions, even stupid ones, and wasn’t embarrassed by it, so people on site generally appreciated that I was curious. I was interested in learning about lime mortars, stone masonry and things like that, so they got to show me and that really helped our relationships moving forward.”

The Key to Success in Accessibility Projects

Vanessa worked on conversions to maisonettes for the elderly, as well as other accessibility projects and building adaptations for disabled. She learned some valuable lessons from that work.

“My first ever project was to deal with disability adaptation. It was a residential property of a family whose daughter was severely disabled. What I’ve realised is that a lot of the time, the people who really need that piece of work are not listened to, and not only now but also in the future, because some people’s conditions deteriorate, and it’s not considered. So you would spend thousands of pounds to put the project together and build it, and then in two years’ time, it wasn’t really suitable and fit for purpose! Now I’m not an occupational therapist, but I would really try to work with an occupational therapist and push them on what is needed, as well as speak to the people involved, trying to pin down a clear brief right from the beginning. You’ve got to remember the purpose of the project all the way through, because it can be very easy to get pulled in lots of different directions, and you forget whom you’re actually helping,” Vanessa concludes.

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