From The SF Gate, July 9, 2012
By Julian Guthrie
Tina Humphrey heads past the stucco guys, says hello to her stonemason sizing the limestone, and walks into the tarp-covered kitchen where another half dozen men are drilling, hauling, measuring and sawing, stirring up noise and dust in equal measure.
“I want to have a meeting with everyone today to talk about the food scraps being left out and the dogs getting into it,” she tells one of her “subs” (subcontractors). “Food needs to go into compost. Garbage into garbage. And I don’t want materials we’re getting rid of mixed in the pile with materials to reuse.” Humphrey rolls her eyes and says, “When guys get together on a job site, they grunt and groan and sometimes don’t clean up. It’s like when your guy makes you dinner. You love it, but then you look at the huge mess in the kitchen.”
Humphrey, who works exclusively in Marin County, is one of the few female general contractors around, and can do framing, roofing or stucco with the best of them, but keeps a tube of lip gloss in her tool belt, next to her angle, rasp, chisel and framing hammer.
“I like to work with the guys,” she says, brushing back her shoulder-length blond hair, “but I don’t want to look like one of the guys.” Humphrey, who is 51, recently moved to Mill Valley from Cambria, a small town halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. She has two ex-husbands (both contractors, and she works from time to time with one or both) and three children, ages 30, 20, and 18.
Her current project is overhauling a house in Mill Valley with towering redwood trees in the backyard. “When she started, she was a little more of a bully because people didn’t take her seriously like they do now,” said Randy Mullins, her first ex-husband, who was on the job with her. “Tina’s all about the client, and doesn’t cut her subs any slack.”
On this day, Humphrey, whose firm is called “Buildergirl Design and Construction,” arrives at the West Blithedale Avenue site at about 8:30 a.m. She likes what she sees: six trucks, 15 guys and no one standing around. She checks in with the different trades, to get updates on their work.
“I don’t do plumbing and electrical,” she says. “I will still do demolition and my own cleanup. In the early days I did foundation and framing. I don’t love doing roofing, but I can. I love finish work, like the interior trims.”
Humphrey was 21 years old and a divorced single mom in Cambria when she started a small catering business for contractors. She developed an interest in the work, and began taking night classes at the local community college in drafting. A contractor hired her as his office manager, and promised to teach her drafting.
She learned drafting and carpentry, and got her general contractor’s license in 1989. She remembers working long days on construction sites and then picking up her daughter at day care and heading to the grocery store before home.
“I was dirty and grimy and covered in dust, and I’d see these women in the store all nicely dressed and sometimes wonder what I was doing,” she says. “My daughter remembers that, and recently told me how proud she felt of me.”
When she first started learning the trade, she would tell the guys: “Give me any work you don’t want to do, but show me how you do it.”
“I think being a woman brings a lot to the job,” she continues, taking a break from sawing. “I know that oftentimes, the man is paying for the construction, but it’s the woman you need to make happy. I make a point to get to know the neighbors and explain what’s going to go on, how long the job will take, and the hours that we will and won’t work. I tell my subs not to use foul language on the site, not to park their car in front of neighbors’ driveways and to keep the site clean.”
Laughing, she says she also mediates tiffs between workers.
“You’ll get these guys who don’t like each other, for whatever reason,” she says. “I get them together and we talk about what is going on. At the end, I always hug my guys, and they’ll shake hands.”
Standing in front of the 1,860-square-foot home, which will have three bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths, she points out the before picture and her rendering of what it will look like when completed in August.
“I like to take the ugliest home on the best street and make it the nicest,” she says. Working nearby is stonemason Douglas Bryant, who says he appreciates Humphrey’s attention to detail. “I like anybody who has a passion for building, but having a woman general contractor brings a different sensibility to the job,” Bryant says. “It’s nice.” Walking past the stucco machine, she laughs and says, “I always hated concrete. It really dries the skin, and is terrible on the hands.”
Julian Guthrie is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer