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You'd never guess Carol Steed is 67 years old if you watched her yanking chunks of dry wall from her Chevy Silverado. Her face flushes red from exertion, but she's doggedly chipper. When she reaches the remains of the crumbling mass heaped behind the cab of the truck, she hops onto its bed, straddles its sidewall, and finishes scooping out what's left. Today, like most days, she's the only woman at Atlas Magic Waste, the only female contractor visiting the dump's towering piles of pine and concrete.
Carol's accustomed to standing out. She was the first female mortgage broker in the state of Florida and is lauded by the National Register of Historic Places and Who's Who of America as one of a gritty group of women who trailblazed commerce in real estate and construction. For the last 40 years, she's built Broward homes from scratch, and unlike plenty of other builders who subcontract much of the work involved, Carol Steed and her daughter, Monica, take their homes from concept to 3-D finish.
"I like the challenge of seeing a vacant piece of property and creating something on top of it," she says. Her daughter, Monica, who began working on her first house when she was only five years old, easily jumps into the conversation. The two women often interrupt one another, and it's not because of a lack of social graces -- it's the way they communicate. They radio one another with job updates well into the twilight hours. Some members of their work crews even liken them to twins.
"Laying it out, digging the footer, laying the sod, the trees, the grass, everything ," says Monica. Carol finishes the thought for her. "You'd be surprised how many people can't take it from the beginning [to finish] because there's so much detail they get lost."
The Steeds usually have three or four houses going up at once, with more than 500 homes to their credit in Broward County. Although Monica describes the outfit as a small, family-owned business, they've done well enough over the years to keep running at a profit and to finance vacations, shopping trips to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and even yearly tickets to the Super Bowl, which Carol attends faithfully regardless of locale.
Like other contractors the mother-daughter team toils hard for its rewards. Virtually all builders haggle day and night with a barrage of industry workers that includes land surveyors, truss companies, engineers, and architects. Over the course of two months, they'll collect a fat packet of stamps, seals, and thick, smudgy blueprints, all of which are subject to review by cities' inspectors. In Broward County a house and its surrounding property must pass 23 inspections before it can be completed and sold.
Unlike other contractors the Steeds, on occasion, have endured an extra hassle: gender discrimination. Its various incarnations shadow both the way they are treated and their approach to building homes.
Back when Hollywood and Emerald Hills were mostly nettled fields of weeds and scrubs, Carol's then-fledgling company was approached by McDonald's to build one of the chain's early Broward sites. After a brief back-and-forth, Carol concluded that a female contractor garnered little respect from major corporations.
"It was all pretty male, building Texacos or Eckerds; it didn't matter how much experience you had. It was too hard for a woman to bust into that."
Since then, both Carol and Monica have also weathered sexual harassment in the forms of catcalling, persistent pickup lines, and even the occasional squeeze-beneath-the-breast-disguised-as-a-hug by Broward inspectors. "Yeah, they like to look at my boobs," says Monica. "This one inspector, after a while, I got real self-conscious about him checking me out."
When Monica failed to reciprocate interest, the Hollywood inspector began to nitpick about the width of steel she used and whether nails were hammered too far apart. Then he began to threaten her with fines. When she balked he began to rub her back. That's when Monica decided to complain to the city's chief building inspector, Greg O'Hara, who's known the Steeds for close to 13 years.
"I spoke to both parties and could not substantiate the allegation. I think it's a credit to Monica that she always tries to resolve issues within the proper channels," says the soft-spoken O'Hara. Although O'Hara couldn't corroborate Monica's claims, he did assign another inspector to the site.
Despite difficulties Carol insists that her gender is also a boon that, among other things, fuels her commitment to building the sturdiest of houses. The Steeds invest their own dollars into raising single-family homes, duplexes, and triplexes, but they'll occasionally create custom homes for landowners, like the 3200-square-foot dwelling tucked beside the Hollywood Bridge. Almost completed, the pink and white stucco house boasts a half-moon entranceway and sweeping glass doors opening toward the languid waters of the Intracoastal. Owner Marty Silverberg held zero prejudice when he first learned the Steeds were women.
"Monica was dressed like a worker, with the tools, the belt, the whole thing. That was really cool," says Silverberg. "You get things [from them] that you normally don't get. They don't do just dry wall, they do blue board and they plaster it. They're artists."
For the Steeds, sturdy also means using two-by-four wood studs instead of the shakier metal ones. It means soundproof walls and roofs that don't peel off in storms. In the early '90s, after Hurricane Andrew pummeled South Florida, Carol and Monica say they received dozens of thank you phone calls from people who had bought their houses over the years.
"I was a nervous wreck because I thought, Oh jeez, I wonder if I'm losing any roofs -- did we nail everything in? We stayed up all night, and then I said, 'We've done everything right,'" she says, and slaps her knee for emphasis. "We've got to do it right, because I'm a woman. I've got to spend an extra couple of thousand dollars to make that house right because I have to prove myself "
Monica, who's been listening and nodding her head, joins in, and the two chant in chorus: "Each and every time."
At their current building site in Fort Lauderdale, their feminine presence is evident. Three girlie lap dogs (Fluffette, Sidney, and Stubby) yip-yip around the site and welcome employees back from errands. Like rough-and-tumble matriarchs, the Steeds preside over second and third generations of construction workers. They hire retired carpenters' sons and grandsons, and they keep tabs on their plasterer's kids. They even disinfect cuts and offer unsolicited advice.
"Carol and Monica's as tough as any man," says John Paulo, a carpenter and foreman for a Steed work crew. "[But] they're women; they've got the mother thing going on. If you get caught with Carol on a truck ride, you'll get a lecture, like, 'Now, John, you've got to get your life together.'"
The Steeds believe that this familial approach to work sustains their success. For Thanksgiving they passed out birds; for Christmas they'll proffer gifts. They maintain close-knit crews, and in return, they receive loyalty and reliability, two scarce resources in an industry known for its high turnover and worker disappearing acts. "That's why Mom's taught me to keep our guys tight," says Monica. "When we call them when we need something done, they're right there."
Carol pauses for a moment before chiming in. Her laugh-lined face scrunches up, and she peers from behind her sawdust-coated spectacles as if looking for some final philosophy. After a second or two, she finds it.
"See, men think construction is all brute force. Everybody you talk to says, 'How can you do it? A woman's so weak, you're not strong enough.' Well, construction's not force; construction is all leverage. It's brainwork."
Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org