Allison Cook shows a passion for building safety
Allison Cook, member of the ICC Accessibility Exam Development Committee, is currently a plans examiner and facilitator for Arlington County, Va. She is primarily a commercial fast track and residential plan review supervisor for the Inspection Services Division in Community Planning, Housing and Development.
The Code Council sat down with Cook to ask a few questions on her choice of career path and her passion for building safety.
Q: What was the path to your career? How and why did you pursue a profession in code enforcement?
A: I ended up in a career in code enforcement in a roundabout way. I really didn’t know much about this industry at first.
I got my degree in landscape architecture from the University of Maryland. The economy was in the toilet when I graduated in 2008. So I went into local government because I had done some internships there and it was a good opportunity. That local government had a Department of Justice case for accessibility violations and I got put on a team of about 15 folks to do inspections and plan review for future projects to address that issue. I came to realize that I love building codes. I thought it was really fascinating and it was a really good way to have a meaningful impact on projects, especially when you talk about accessibility.
When you’re building a brand-new building without plan review, you’d miss many things that aren’t compliant. You’d miss bathrooms that don’t have the correct turning space or doorways that are spaced too close together. I then took an opportunity in Alexandria to become a plans examiner and now I’m with Arlington as a plans examiner supervisor. So my journey on my career path has developed in a roundabout way, but I think a lot of people in the industry don’t necessarily have to come from a construction background. I think you can come from a different profession and learn a lot and still bring a great deal to the table.
Q: You have already started speaking about your passions in your career. What do you see as potential challenges?
A: Right now I supervise a team of seven folks that review all residential plans in Arlington for code compliance and the smaller fast track of commercial tenants — like your mom & pop shops. So one of the big challenges in the industry in general that a lot of folks run into is that the general public has no idea what we do. They see us as a regulatory hurdle. They don’t really understand the value of what we’re bringing to them, that we are providing a level of life safety for themselves, their employees and their customers.
And that’s a really big industry-wide challenge — communicating to the public about our general value and that we’re not just a hurdle and that we do a great job protecting people and providing a life safety value. For example, I think after something like Hurricane Andrew in Florida, people got the message why building to code was valuable. It’s usually not until some terrible incident happens, like the London fire, when people in Arlington were starting to ask questions about what the building department is doing for high-rises. And then it just slips away from the public eye again. They’re not familiar with the day-to-day and the plan review and inspections.
Q: You show passion in figuring out ways to bring in a new generation of code officials in the building safety industry. What are some ways we can begin connecting with a younger generation and introduce them to code enforcement?
A: I think one way to begin is to ask the younger people who are currently in our ICC programs and in the industry. I think the High School Technical Training Program is a great place to start. The students in that program are a great resource to ask things like: what media do you use? Where do you get your information? How did you get interested in this?
It’s a good effort to reach out on not just Facebook or Twitter but some of the other platforms like Reddit or Snapchat when looking towards using these media communications tools and relying on the younger folks in the future of building safety.
The biggest thing I’d like to see is a formalized mentor/mentee program. I’ve had some fantastic people who have helped me out along my process. I had a supervisor, Bill King, who gave me direction in what to pursue to help me with my career. Cindy Davis has been incredibly helpful to me as well. These people helped me by telling me, ‘Take these steps, do these things, it will help your career.’ So I think having a formal mentor/mentee program from ICC would help when recruiting a new generation.
There’s something to be said about reaching outside of the circle. We’re doing a fantastic job reaching out to people within the industry, especially in the ICC world. We now need to find a pathway to pull people in.
Q: From your perspective, are there special challenges or distinctions in being a woman in construction?
A: Especially coming from my being a little bit on the younger side for the industry, occasionally I’ll go into a meeting where people are standoffish at first because they don’t know me or my experience, but once people get to know me, people are super supportive.
There are always challenges, but when I think about my mom and mentors who are women and they talk about what it was like 20 or 30 years ago, it’s hard for me to grasp the concept of how the past was so difficult.
My mom got an engineering degree when there were only 15 other women getting that degree. She had a professor tell her ‘Women don’t belong in engineering. They don’t have the capacity for it.’ I look at that and how there’s been massive progress since then, and I remember how grateful I am to stand on the shoulders of women before me. When you look at what it used to be for a woman in this industry, it’s pretty insane.
I would say to any women worried about breaking into this industry that as long as you know the codes, you’re working with people in a positive manner, and you’re saying, ‘Let’s try to make these safety requirements work. Let’s get your building in order and do what we need to do’ — then people are going to be welcoming and open to that.
If there are women considering entering this industry, I don’t think being a woman is the hurdle that a lot of people imagine when going into construction or building. And maybe other women have different perspectives, and that’s always great to share so we can always improve. But I really hope that the history of this industry doesn’t discourage women from entering it.
Q: How many certifications do you hold?
A: I hold 15 ICC certifications. This is important to me. It’s a way to show knowledge, and if other job opportunities open, this is a great way to prepare for those.
I was a plans examiner and I’m now supervising plans examiners, but I have certifications in inspections. My career goal is to become a building official, so it was important for me to understand everyone’s roles in a building department in regards to what they do and what their certification expectations are so that I can speak intelligently on those topics.
If you don’t hold the same certifications as your team, it’s sometimes hard to get buy-in. There’s a lot of value to holding certifications — not just from the knowledge you gain from it but also for showing your team that you understand some of the exams are challenging and are part of their job expectations. You can be supportive and help them because you’ve been down that road as well.
Q: Why are you involved in an Exam Development Committee?
A: That’s another place where a mentor was a great connection. I can’t remember who it was, so I apologize if some of the folks back home are reading this and I’m not giving credit to the right person. One of the people whom I’ve worked with said an Exam Development Committee is a great opportunity to become more familiar with the ICC process, to become more familiar with ICC as an organization, and to really understand the logic and thought process behind the exams. It’s a good way to participate at a reasonable commitment level that gives a lot of people — especially if you’re newer to the industry and new to ICC — a good opportunity to learn a little bit more about ICC and to dip your toe into the water of ICC as an organization and committing some of your time to helping with ICC’s goals.
Q: When your hard hat is off, what do you most enjoy?
A: I love cycling (not the motorbike with the engine, but the actual pedal bike) and bourbon. Washington, D.C., is a bike-friendly city. There are ton of bike lanes. We’ll often bike from our home in D.C. all the way to a restaurant in Arlington for breakfast so I can eat whatever I want. That’s a big motivator!
My husband and I got married at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky a couple years ago. I just really enjoy bourbon — I think it’s really fun, although it’s a very hip industry right now. But it’s still something unusual and fun while not being ridiculously expensive that not everybody else does.