As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, we want to highlight extraordinary Women in Construction, past and present. In this profile we spotlight Elsie Eaves, the first woman to become a full member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a pioneer in the use of data to inform construction.
When she graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1920 with a civil engineering degree, construction was still a largely closed profession to women. She worked a succession of entry level positions for for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, the Colorado State Highway Department, and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
Frustrated by the lack of opportunity, Elsie switched gears. In 1926, she moved to New York City and took a job as a marketing assistant for Engineering News-Record (ENR). Before long, she was named director of market surveys for ENR and later the manager of the magazine’s “Business News” section, a position she would hold for the next three decades.
Changing the Paradigm
ENR had introduced its Construction Cost Index several years prior, but the idea still hadn’t really caught on when Elsie joined the company. That soon changed under Elsie’s supervision.
“Elsie Eaves was the one who made ENR’s cost indexes the industry standard,” said Ken Humphreys, a retired executive director of the American Association of Cost Engineers.
In pioneering a method to measure the market for construction materials and wages, Elsie helped fully bring the construction industry into the 20th century. Between 1933-35, she also organized and directed an inventory of stalled construction projects in need of federal funding. Her data helped Congress pass legislation that jumpstarted construction activity and helped alleviate the impact of the Great Depression.
In 1945, she directed ENR’s measurement of “Post War Planning.” This data was used by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Committee of Economic Development to plan what projects should be prioritized once World War II ended. Elsie then converted the data into the first continuous inventory of planned construction, a major accomplishment almost two decades before the first computerized databases were invented. The database she created eventually evolved to become ENR’s “Backlog of Proposed Construction,” an index cataloging more than $100 billion of construction activity.
A Legacy of Firsts
At the height of her career, Elsie oversaw a couple of dozen members of ENR’s Business News department, as well as the staff of Construction Methods & Equipment magazine, and about 125 construction project field reporters. She also edited the pilot issues of Construction Daily, a daily news service.
In 1927, she became the first woman to become a full member of the ASCE. In 1957, she also helped found the American Association of Cost Engineers, becoming its first woman member. Both organizations eventually awarded her an Honorary Life Membership in recognition of her achievements. A founding and life member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), she served on the SWE Board of Trustees and was elected a SWE Fellow in 1980. It was said that she “always encouraged women by her active example and participation.”
After retiring from ENR in 1963, Elsie remained active, and her expertise was sought out both nationally and internationally. She served as an advisor to the National Commission on Urban Affairs, providing guidance about housing costs. Later she also advised the International Executive Service Corps about construction costs in Iran.
Lessons for Today’s Leaders
Elsie Eave’s life and career offer some lessons for both AEC professionals and construction project owners:
- Data is king (or queen): Elsie understood — even before the digital age — the importance of accurate information. Even more importantly, she knew that for it to be actionable, that information has to be accessible. Even today, document control is a struggle on construction projects, with studies showing that 35% of the data created during design and construction is lost by closeout. And that missing data represents real lost value: missing warranties, underutilized service agreements, and increased legal liability for the project owner.
- Pay attention to the details: Elsie was renowned for her attention to detail. In creating the Post War Planning database by hand, she demonstrated a phenomenal ability to maintain accuracy across a myriad of data points. She understood that small errors can quickly escalate into major issues, so having a reliable and sustainable quality control system is essential. That too is just as true today as it was in her day: a 2021 report by Digital Builder reported that miscommunication and bad data account for almost 50% of all project rework.
- Sometimes you have to think outside the box: Throughout her career, Elsie demonstrated a gift for anticipating opportunities and finding innovative paths. When traditional engineering jobs didn’t offer her the advancement she wanted, she transitioned into construction publishing. Once there, she grasped the value of ENR’s Construction Cost Index before most of her professional peers and helped evolve it into an essential industry tool. Today’s owners should also be continually on the look out for new technologies that can be leveraged to increase visibility, improve communication, more effectively manage schedules and budgets, and mitigate risk.
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