Our Women in Hi Vis: Helen Edmiston

‘Our Women in Hi Vis’ is a series highlighting the awesome women shaping a new narrative of what it’s like to work in the construction industry. Geotech Engineer, Helen Edmiston, chats to us about her role, her experience working as part of an alliance and a bit about her life outside of work.
Helen hard at work in her make-shift home office.

What is geotechnical engineering?

Geotech engineering can be broken into two categories: investigation and construction. In the investigative stages, we determine the composition of rock and soil beneath the ground's surface by conducting various tests. This information helps our designers and engineers determine what can be built on the land. On construction sites, geotech engineers advise site teams how to carry out earthworks and construction in a way that ensures structures are stable and long lasting.

Both categories are crucial, because when it comes to physically building things on land, geology doesn’t care what your plans are – it’ll behave how it wants!

What made you choose geotech over other engineering disciplines?

I first leaned towards engineering when I saw a careers advisor before leaving high school. I took a competency test and scored highly on the ‘engineering’ scale. This gave me the encouragement I needed to enrol in it at university. I graduated in civil engineering, but it wasn’t until I started working at Tonkin + Taylor that I learned what geotech engineering was...and I started nerding over it immediately! In hindsight it makes sense because I was always interested in natural geography in high school and fascinated by tectonic movements and their effects on our landscape.

It’s a great career path for those interested in engineering who don’t want to work at a desk all day.

Talk us through the geotech investigation process.

It involves what’s known as ‘soil profiling’. We use a bunch of tools and techniques to firstly retrieve samples of soil. Some techniques are hands-on like hand augers that we physically twist into the ground to pull out small cylinders of soil. Others are more technologically advanced - things like drill rigs and high-tech probes. We use a combination of these techniques to build a general profile of the land.

We then conduct tests to understand a few key properties of the land. These could include vertical and lateral strength, weight bearing capacity, density and how well it drains water.

How has your experience been working at Piritahi as part of an alliance?

My day-to-day activities are so different now compared to when I was solely working on projects at my home company, Tonkin + Taylor. In the consulting world, there a clear-cut line between us (the engineering consultant) and construction (AKA the contractor). Piritahi is an alliance of both worlds - design and construction working together, so there is much more collaboration and communication across all of disciplines involved with delivering an end-to-end project.

Learning to work with a much bigger team of people with so many more moving parts has been really challenging, but part of the fun!

What do you enjoy most about working at Piritahi?

I’ve learnt so much. I felt like I had to learn a whole new language of just acronyms when I first started! It’s been fascinating gaining exposure to the different facets of the job that I’d otherwise never learn about. As a geotech engineer, I’m usually sent to site to complete a contained task, but now I understand the full picture of how my work fits into a programme of work which is really satisfying.

Another aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed about my role is being able to share my knowledge with new grads who have come through the alliance. Not only is it fulfilling to be able to show them the ropes, but it also cements my own knowledge and understanding.

What are some specific challenges you’ve faced in your career to date?

I think because I’m female and naturally very extroverted, I don’t necessarily fit the mould of an engineer or construction worker - that’s something I’ve learned to overcome. Times are changing although some stereotypes still exist and there have been times where I feel like I don’t fit in and have doubted that I’m in the right industry. However, this challenge has presented me with the opportunity to develop and improve my communication and relationship-building skills.

The actual geotech work tasks have also proved challenging at times. Our sites are confined by nature of being in urban neighbourhoods - areas where lots of people live already, meaning there are lots of existing underground services like gas and water pipes to work around. This means site investigation tasks that are really straightforward in undeveloped or ‘greenfield’ sites, in the land the Piritahi is developing requires much more care and precision.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love being outdoors – tramping, bike riding, playing football, just being in nature. Probably not surprising that the girl who loves dirt, also loves trees! My parents recently moved to Awhitu Peninsula, so my husband and I spend a lot of time there now enjoying the scenery and fresh air.

Apart from that, I also enjoy painting. I did a lot of face painting as a side hustle throughout high school and uni. It was always entertaining watching the faces of parents when the fairy painting rainbows on their child’s face told them she was studying civil engineering.