Brenda Kingston Director WSP Built Ecology  / 

story / Interview / June 29, 2015

After high school I actually worked for a few years, not in any particular industry. I ended up thinking that I wanted to be an architect. I applied for courses and got into Building Construction. Through that process, I discovered what engineers do and discovered it really suited me. I completed a Bachelor of Building Engineering and specialised in services. Straight away I always knew I wanted to be a Consultant.

I was working as a mechanical services designer in the late nineties and I was really disappointed with some of the designs that were being proposed. They were inefficient and really irresponsible. I was interested in doing something different and ended up completing a part-time postgraduate degree in Environmental Engineering. After I started the course I changed companies to WSP Lincolne Scott, partly because of their environmental focus. For several years I was still involved in mechanical services design and then eventually transitioned to where I am now.

We’re consultants. We spend a lot of time consulting with our clients and with our design team. A lot of what we do at the design phase is write reports, attend meetings and undertake the development of design concepts. We do a lot of analysis and observations to incorporate any research and we present ideas and concepts. Once the concepts are accepted, we spend a lot of time working with the design team to refine the designs and ensure they are documented appropriately.

We also work with existing buildings to improve their environmental performance. In Melbourne, this is a relatively small component of our work, but that’s where I get involved with the most. Most of our refurbishment work is through existing clients. They’ve heard of the company, and they’re looking for someone to solve a problem. If you have a rapport or you understand the problem, then often you get repeat work. Lincoln Scott and WSP have been operating in Melbourne for over one hundred years. We know a lot of the history and we have a great depth of experience. In our business model that’s pretty important.

My progression has been very organic. I often find that your superiors often want you to do more and more, so that they can do more. As long as you take up those challenges and accept them, then you quite naturally progress. It was a really big step for me to take on a leadership role. It wasn’t something that I was looking for. I really liked design and engineering work. I liked solving problems and I thought managing would be an unnecessary distraction. It took a couple of times before I accepted the challenge. I think the key is to enjoy what you’re doing and to keep taking on those challenges.

One of the first things I learnt is that it’s a really small industry. The people you meet in your first year, you’ll still be talking to them later on in your career. And you remember the history, so just be nice to everyone.

Current legislation is definitely changing the industry. I believe the legislation is promoting the demand for environmental engineering to be involved in a project and to promote a project. Beyond that, when I first started in Victoria, we were really just consulting to the top five percent of the market, now we are consulting to ninety percent of the market share. That’s a really good change. With that, even though we are doing more work for more projects, a lot of people still just want to just ‘comply’. The proportion of developers or clients that want to really push the envelope is still only around the ten percent.

For Greenstar, the perennial question has always been whether the documentation that you submit; all those bits of paper, the reliance on the consultants to provide a statements, are genuine. Protecting the profile of the build, making sure it’s not corrupt, and also protecting the image of the Company, that’s a real difficult process. I think that the Green Building Council has been getting better at it ever year.

In the future, I think flexibility will influence how we work as designers. Thinking of activity based work and then using technology to allow people to work differently. Embracing that is important and I think it will have a great environmental impact; building a smaller world and reducing the need for transportation. If you could go to your local coffee shop, plug in and just work from there, you’re not using a lot of resources. Unfortunately I think as a society; we don’t change. With climate change, changing weather and reef depletion, I think this will provoke further thought.

The only barriers you uncover by undertaking a consulting role are biases. Most of the time, being a woman is an advantage. You stand out, people remember you and they’re often a little kinder. Professionally, the demands and deadlines are often a struggle.

When women are interrupted in their career to have a family, it’s harder. My observation is that a lot of women drop out of consulting for various reasons. Their priorities change, they are looking for a company that’s more family friendly, or they feel left behind. We have a number of people at work, both male and female whose priority is to work around their families. That kind of flexible work arrangement is really important to retaining people.

My mother always told me not to marry young. That’s pretty much the only advice I ever remembered! Not to marry young and not to have children young.

Brenda’s prompt response to our proposal to be invited to participate in the Gazella project was quite exciting. We caught up for drinks at Cookie on one of Melbourne’s lazy summer afternoons. Softly spoken, Brenda appears calm but intuitive. Heading overseas for a well deserved and long awaited long service leave, she spoke excitedly on her plans to travel abroad to Europe (we listened with envy!). A pleasure to photograph, she couldn’t be a more perfect example of a female leader; who even in casual conversation, easily presents the technical knowledge and skill of her profession, but also shows a real understanding of how to sensitively manage people. We hope you enjoyed her interview.

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