By Andrew Khouri
Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As a child, Kirstin Harper-Smith built lego towers for her barbies to live and play in, now this 32 year old construction dynamo is overseeing the development of a major multi-unit apartment tower in downtown LA.
The gig: Kirstin Harper-Smith, 32, is senior project manager at Boston-based Suffolk Construction, where she is supervising the building of a 525-unit apartment tower in downtown Los Angeles.
The 888 Grand Hope Lofts project by LA developer CIM Group will eventually rise 34 stories, consuming 27,000 cubic yards of concrete and 3,500 tons of rebar along the way.
As head of the 10-person office side of the project, she oversees the budget, ensures safety requirements are met and directs who should do what jobs when, all while trying to keep the project on schedule to wrap in about two years. She anticipates 10-hour days until then.
An early start: Harper-Smith caught the engineering bug while growing up in San Diego. She recalls spending hours building Lego towers for her Barbies to live and play in. “I was like the Queen of Legos,” she says. “I would just sit there and build crazy things.”
The toys helped her understand the “physics of things, how things fall over and how you have to balance them”, tools she’s used through the years as a gymnast, dancer and engineer. “All engineers are huge problem solvers, and that is something I enjoy; just figuring out how things work or ways to make things efficient, just kind of putting it all together.”
A quick rise: Harper-Smith says it’s important for young people entering any industry to lean on the people there before them and listen.
“You have trade experts out there who know their job better than anybody else or people at Suffolk who have been doing this for 30 years,” she says. “If you listen and understand you are empowered to take the next step.”
Using the knowledge she gained, Harper-Smith took many of those steps quickly, working her way from internships to full-time jobs. She previously worked on Los Angeles Unified School District projects and LA’s historic Hall of Justice, which underwent a $231 million seismic retrofit and renovation.
Just 13 years after she started in the industry, Suffolk hired her from Clark Construction to manage the CIM tower downtown.
A good example: Hard work is a major reason Harper-Smith says she’s now managing such a large construction project at only 32 years old. And a major reason for that hard work is her mother, Mary-Elizabeth.
Watching her single mother take care of the family, work a full-time job and get her law degree at the same time provided an example for Harper-Smith’s life.
“It kind of instills that mentality in you that you are always ready to work and accomplish things,” she says. “It’s more feasible when you see someone else do it, you know?”
So who worked harder: her mother or the project manager who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from USC, an MBA from Loyola Marymount University and is overseeing a major construction project?
“I am sure she would argue she did,” Harper-Smith said with a laugh.
Leadership style: Show, don’t tell. Harper-Smith says she tries to guide her team toward solutions or a common goal by talking through problems and doing the work with them.
“People think, ‘Oh you are the boss and you wag your finger and you tell someone to do something and they are going to do it.’ But that is the complete opposite of what really should happen,” she says. “The people you work with are the most critical people that you are ever going to need, and they need to be able to find their own path.”
Love of the job: Harper-Smith says she enjoys driving or walking past old projects she has worked on, including the L.A. Live entertainment complex and downtown’s restored Hall of Justice, because it brings back happy memories. Indeed, when she sees a skyline, she thinks of all the effort that it took to build.
“It’s not one person, a lot of times people always remember the owner or the designer. But the people who built it, the day-to-day workers, you can’t thank them enough because they are the ones who give us the city that we live in.”
A different team: Harper-Smith, who is biracial, manages a team on the CIM tower that’s half women, a rarity in an industry dominated by older, white males.
The different perspectives that members of her team bring to the job help them succeed, she says.
“Tried and true does not always mean it is the best or most efficient way to get things done,” she says. “Diversity in a team allows team members to challenge one another in thinking and find better paths forward.”
Personal: When not working, the LA resident enjoys cooking, yoga and exploring her adopted town.
“In this city, it’s amazing the random things you can find.”