New children’s book shows girls that women can build houses too

Zoey Gerson, 4, assembles a house-shaped bookcase with the help of general contractor Kristi Allen, who is the inspiration for the children’s book, ‘’The House That She Built.’’ (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Zoey Gerson, 4, assembles a house-shaped bookcase with the help of general contractor Kristi Allen, who is the inspiration for the children’s book, ‘’The House That She Built.’’ (Emma Lee/WHYY)

About a half-dozen young children, around 5 years old, got a taste of the building trades on the front lawn of the Smith Memorial Playground in Fairmount Park, where they assembled a prefabricated bookshelf in the shape of a house.

The team of youngsters was led by Kristi Allen, a general contractor based in Utah. She found that the bookshelf’s tiny dowels and hex wrenches posed unique construction challenges.

“We struggled at the very beginning because I couldn’t find the directions, but we got it all figured out,” she said. “The kids did an awesome job. It was fun to see how excited they were.”

The assembly marked the launch of a new picture book, “The House That She Built,” by Philadelphia author and marketer Mollie Elkman. The book for young readers shows the step-by-step process of building a house by a team of workers made up entirely of women: from design to excavating the foundation, to framing and insulation, all the way to finishes and interior decoration.

Philadelphia author Mollie Elkman reads her book, ‘’The House That She Built,’’ to a group of preschoolers at Smith Memorial Playground in Fairmount Park, where they gathered to celebrate the book’s release. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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The book grew out of an actual building project in Utah, also called The House That She Built, completed this summer, where a team of women built a showcase house on behalf of Professional Women in Building, a council of the Utah Home Builders Association. About 100 women from all relevant building trades constructed a 3,200-square-foot, 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath house. The house is now for sale, expected to raise $400,000 for PWB.

Allen served as the general contractor for that build, too, which also had unique construction challenges: statistically, women make up just 3.4% of America’s onsite building workforce. Wrangling an all-women team meant importing crewmembers from across the country.

“It was extremely challenging, yes. Absolutely,” said Allen. “But there was an amazing group of women who were in charge of recruiting, finding women to work on it, women working on finding sponsorships for us. Almost all the products in the home were donated and all of the women that came out were volunteers.”

One of those women recruited into the project was Elkman, who is based in Philadelphia and works in marketing for construction projects nationally. To extend the message of The House That She Built – that women can successfully have careers in the building trades – Elkman and illustrator Georgia Castellano put together a children’s book of the same name.

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“The House That She Built,” the book, outlines for very young readers the series of jobs required to build a house, showing each one performed by a woman.

‘’The House That She Built’’ is aimed at encouraging girls to consider careers in the building trades. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We believe that career-based bias actually starts at an extremely young age,” said Elkman, who says there has been a labor shortage in the construction industry for 15 years. “If we don’t have labor to supply housing, that’s a real problem. We really feel that that starts with changing the conversation with the youngest learners.”

“The House That She Built” is published by BuilderBooks, a division of the National Association of Home Builders. An imprint geared toward professional builders with practical titles like “Residential Construction Performance Guidelines,” and “Finding Hidden Profits,” this is BuilderBooks’ first book for children and a runaway bestseller: On the day of its release, its 10,000-print run had already sold out through presales.

Allen, herself, is featured in the book as the general contractor. As a third-generation builder, she says she might have benefitted from the book had it been around when she was a girl.

“I grew up in the industry. I worked there for 13 years, never having worked on site, never being a site superintendent or general contractor,” she said. “I had never seen a woman doing it. No one told me I couldn’t, but it just never occurred to me that I would love it.”

Allen broke away from the family business to start her own, WoodCastle Homes. She is also a mother of three young children.

“When my daughter saw me building, she was four or five years old and asked me when I would start teaching her to build homes,” she said. “I was just so amazed that that example of me building homes, and her seeing me do it, inspired her to want to build.”

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