Drawn to the Challenge, Now Leading the Charge: Dallas Team Kicks Off 2021 Women in Construction Week

 |  Building, Sundt People

When you hear the phrase “America’s team” you probably picture the Dallas Cowboys. But what about the team of people building America? If that picture includes only men, it’s time you get acquainted with today’s construction workforce. Meet Sundt Project Controls Manager Sara Allen, Assistant Project Manager Maria Luna, Project Manager Amber Simonson and Senior Project Manager Holly Horsak. These women are at the forefront of Sundt’s commercial operations in North Texas, and they are bringing their A-game to every project we build.

four women pose for professional group photo

From how they got their start, to what motivates them to do quality work, to the legacy they hope to leave for the women who will follow in their footsteps, each has a different story. Regardless of their backgrounds, there is one thing these women have in common: their work is pushing our industry forward.

An Industry for Problem-Solvers

When your gut tells you something is your calling, you follow its lead. “I was always drawn to buildings,” said Maria Luna. “I thought that meant I had to be an architect. But, when I started studying the engineering side of architecture, it steered me toward construction management, which I fell in love with. I just knew I had to be out in the field and not chained to a desk in an office.”

Others “fall into” construction—even as an apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, as in Amber Simonson’s case. “My mom has worked for Sundt for 25 years, and before was with Ninteman. I grew up around construction, visiting my mom on jobsites in the summer.” (Sundt bought Ninteman Construction in 1989 when owner Dean Ninteman was planning his retirement.) For Amber, a college job doing payroll for a concrete firm hardly felt like destiny, but it led her to managing smaller projects, then managing larger projects, and a decade later brought her to Sundt.

While there are several paths to get into construction, what has kept both Maria and Amber here is the fast-paced problem solving that defines the day-to-day work. “There’s always a new challenge,” said Maria. “When the elevator stops working, you have to take the stairs. You also have to get that elevator fixed. My inner engineer likes solving problems—I enjoy preventing them too.” Holly Horsak and Sara Allen agreed, pointing out that the innovation that happens on projects isn’t just a sight to behold; it’s a process they’re taking part in themselves.

I absolutely love this work. It’s ever-changing, it’s raw, and it’s innovative. We’re always coming up with new ideas in the office and the field, and it’s mind-blowing. Whenever we’re talking with clients or subcontractors, we can gauge what the rest of the industry is doing—it’s affirming to know we’re pushing the envelope and doing things differently.

– Sara Allen, Project Controls Manager 

“The World Ain’t All Sunshine and Rainbows”

The famous line from Rocky VI might as well be talking about the obstacles these women take on each day. When things go awry, they know more than anyone: It ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. A project manager needs to be unusually resilient, according to Amber, who joked she now has a “master’s degree” in difficult projects.

“Life is all about how you handle Plan B,” Holly added. “On the rec center we built in Arlington, we had a flow established for foundations, but then we had an issue with the aquatics pit—namely, it rained the entire month. There was so much groundwater that we had to change our entire sequence to hit our deadlines.” The secret is having a short memory, she said. “Every day is a new day and a new opportunity. I have to believe that to set the tone for my team.”

You never stop learning in construction. But you really learn on the hard projects. When things don’t go as planned, you have to be able to laugh, pull up your bootstraps and just push through it all with the most positive attitude. The people who can do that are built for this industry.

– Amber Simonson, Project Manager

Handling a challenging job and balancing the needs of life is enough of a battle for most people in general. It’s worth noting that, of the 1.1 million-plus women working in construction, many are moms and wives. “At the end of the day, I’m still ‘Mom’ to my three kids,” said Amber. “I have to make it to games, make them dinner, not to mention parent them to grow up to be good people, also making sure I maintain a strong marriage.” It’s a full-time job resolving sibling conflicts, juggling schedules, addressing safety hazards in the home, making sure everyone does their jobs, dealing with failure and celebrating success. These skills sound strangely familiar.

For Us, Success is More than a Finished Building

It’s easy to forget that construction is a people business as much as it is one of concrete and steel. This fact, however, remains top of mind for Sara. “I would define success by how proud I am of my work, and our work collectively. A lot of that pride comes from seeing its impact on the community,” she said. “The Beacon is truly a community center. Opening the facility during COVID was tricky, but so many people came out to see it and to buy memberships—you could tell how much they needed a public space like that, especially at that moment. It’s bigger than just a building.”

When the recent snowstorm hit Texas, the Beacon Rec Center had to deal with a loss of power and frozen pipes as countless other facilities did. “The parks project manager was there on the property, dealing with these problems,” said Holly, who managed the project. “I stopped by the project to check on a warranty item, and asked: ‘What can I do for you? You still have owner contingency left—let us take some of this off your plate.'”

“Success is the relationships we build. It’s more than just winning repeat work. It’s the connections with the owner, architect, subs, the community, and most importantly with my own team. When hard situations come up—man-made or outside of anyone’s control—you can lean on those relationships.”

– Holly Horsak, Senior Project Manager

Reflecting on their growth at Sundt, the one relationship that all of these women came back to was that of their mentor(s). “I think for all of us, we’ve had people here both male and female who took us under their wing. They’ve been a sounding board when we needed it, and have given us advice at the right time,” said Holly.

“It’s a unique situation we have here in Texas—I think I could call any of these women, either here or San Antonio or El Paso, and they’d go out of their way to help me with anything. They know I’d do the same for them as well. There’s a lot of strength in that, and I think it makes us stronger as a company.”

Society wants to put everyone in a box. When we don’t push back on this, we forget how unique each person is. We need to push for more acceptance of uniqueness, and allow people and teams the freedom to try new ways of doing things. The industry needs less one-size-fits-all thinking, and more diversity in all senses—gender, age, ethnicity and so on. And that includes having diverse mentors.

– Maria Luna, Assistant Project Manager