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Demex’s Toneille Rowlands is living the demolition dream

For Demex project manager Toneille Rowlands, becoming a demolition expert was unintentional, but now she wouldn’t change it for anything else

“I wanted to be a builder growing up. Then I went to boarding school.”

As is the case for many young women who may thrive in a trade or engineering role, Toneille Rowlands found in school that an education or even an interest in non-traditional careers for women just wasn’t possible. It was therefore a circuitous route and a chance conversation that eventually set her back on the path to the construction industry.

“I tried everything, including working as an operations manager at a cosmetics company,” she explains.

“It was there, doing the shop fit outs, when I got into a discussion with the project manager and that was how I found out about doing a construction management degree.

“My early interest in the industry came from renovating houses with my family while growing up, so I decided I was going to enrol and have a career change.

“At uni the main thing that you get told is get into the industry as soon as you can, so I started labouring and did that for around six months before landing a position at Demex as a construction cadet.”

Over the last five years Rowlands has worked her way through the ranks of Queensland-based demolition, excavation and remediation business Demex, and is now in the position of project manager, overseeing mostly demolition projects.

“I like managing people, but I also like having multiple fronts of work and a lot of things going on,” she says.

“The more exposure I had to the industry, whether it was in contracts, or estimating or whatever it might have been, the more I was pulled back to being on site, seeing what was going on, having the ability to assess opportunities and risks, and be a part of that project coming together. I think it’s really rewarding.

“I fell into demolition, but I absolutely wouldn’t change for the world. I have so much passion for it now.”

Rowlands says that a demolition can be an exciting and fulfilling career for women, irrespective of age. Image: Demex

All in the planning

Rowlands says that, having always been a hands-on person, her current project management role is a way for her to apply her management background but also be on site and get stuck into resolving the challenges that can come with demolishing a large structure.

“That’s why I love doing what I’m doing now – following a project all the way through to completion. We go in and have this massive building when we start and get to the end of it with an empty, clean site ready to go for the building work.”

Such is the usual progression for a Demex demolition. However, Rowlands is currently working on a long-term project in Lithgow, NSW where a large amount of demolition and remediation work has been underway over the past eight months at a historic manufacturing site.

Having begun operation in 1912, the site is still handling production for the likes of the Australian Defence Force, but many buildings on the site have needed to be demolished or reconstructed, with hazardous materials for the project team to contend with.

“It’s been an interesting project in that it’s included a lot of construction,” Rowlands says.

“Everything that we’ve had to remediate in the buildings, like removing the asbestos roof for example, we then reconstruct and replace it.

“The scope has grown considerably from when we first got there. Initially, the focus was on asbestos removal and we had two buildings to demolish. As the confidence from the client grew, we were asked to do construction work as well.

“As that wasn’t planned for at the beginning of the project, that has definitely been the biggest challenge – to fit it into the timeline. And, obviously, we’ve had to manage many more subcontractors and deal with material shortages. With it being in a regional town, it also takes longer to find people to do the work, source the materials and get the materials to site.”

With the buildings being so old, a lot of the project has been a process of discovery as well to see what materials need to be handled and how they can be demolished, removed safely and what is required before reconstruction.

“With asbestos, it’s in a lot more products than what most people think, and we are continuously finding it on this project,” Rowlands says.

“But it’s been good challenge. We’ve tried to do the demolition and construction concurrently, so we stay within the original timeframe for the contract works. The other thing is, it’s an operational facility – so they’re still manufacturing and have defence personnel coming in and out, adding to the challenges of project management. So, it’s just about managing our people and construction partners to make sure that they know what’s going on, we minimise the impact to the manufacturing operations and everyone is staying safe.”

Rowlands says that demolition as an aspect of the construction industry is often overlooked, despite it being rich in opportunities. Partly, she says, it’s down to there being a lack of formal education to funnel people into it.

“Demolition is a very ‘learn on the job’ sector of the industry,” she says.

“There’s no education within Australia around demolition. Apart from getting a demolition licence, there’s nothing that you can do separately like a TAFE course. I’m at the end of my construction management degree now, but we might have touched on it only once or twice in a four-year degree, so there’s no real conversation around it.

“Overseas is a little bit different. There’s a bit more to do in America and England, but definitely, in Australia, to find somebody that has a specialised background in demolition is pretty unheard of. I didn’t think I would go into it myself, but I have no regrets. It’s been an incredible journey so far.”

The Demex team handles a wide variety of demolition, remediation and reconstruction projects. Image: Demex

Demolition dearth

As Melbourne Wide Demolition owner Moira Linton pointed out to Earthmovers & Excavators when discussing her career, women working in project management or on-site roles within demolition are far and few between.

Rowlands says she has experienced the same paucity of female talent in the industry, which was a driver for her to join the National Association of Women in Construction in order to broaden her network.

“I really felt like there was a lack of representation for women in the industry based on my experience so far,” she says.

“Even at uni, when guest speakers would come in to talk about the industry, they were never women. So, I went to NAWIC looking for ways to reach out to other women in the industry and grow my network.

“In the long run, I’d like to bring more women into the industry, and especially within Demex because demolition is such a specialised thing and people don’t know enough about it.”

She has found that ,with her own role as project manager, being a woman in a leadership position is important to show that it is an achievable goal to others who may consider it to be too difficult or intimidating.

“The majority of the women that work in our company are in HR, marketing or accounts – I’m the only one that actually works on our project team and we have one other woman who works in operations,” Rowlands says.

“To find women in the field and in a project space is few and far between. It’d be good to be able to promote it and try and get some interest in it. There are challenges for women trying to get into a male-dominated industry, so having that support network of women that are doing it and have been there can help motivate those women who want to give it a try.”

Education is key, she says – whether that’s at the school age and university level, or older people looking for a career change.

“We’ve recently done a couple of open days for uni students to showcase that we have graduate and cadet positions, and having a woman on the stand does mean more women will come and speak to us, so I think that’s been really positive and something we want to do more of,” she says.

“Anyone can get into the industry at any point if they have the interest. It’s about wanting to bring women into the industry, promote other women working within it and showcase what we are doing.”

Rowlands would like to see more women enter the demolition industry. Image: Demex
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