Hilary Herman is a rare breed. She grew up in New York City, where she attended the High School of Art & Design, and graduated from Long Beach State with a degree in art history. So, naturally enough, she went into … the building industry. She went from hands-on construction to building inspection in Butte County, then found herself in management one fateful week in Berkeley when her boss quit, the city was declared an El Niño disaster area and she had to condemn the Cal chancellor’s house when it slid down the hill into another home. After 10 years in the East Bay, Herman returned 2 1/2 years ago to become the building official for the city of Chico. Now 54, she lives with her husband in the Barber Yard neighborhood, sleeping under the stars behind her vintage house.
What exactly is the “city building official”?
I administer the Building Department, which is responsible for all plan checks and inspections of new and historic buildings. Our job is to protect the life, safety and property of the community at large through the built environment.
Are many building officials women?
I’m in a rare group. Normally I’ll go to a meeting and there’ll be 300 men and a dozen women who are building officials. The numbers are growing a bit, just like woman building inspectors are growing a bit. There’s a difference [physically between men and women] in humping lumber or power tools—I have no problem with division of the sexes if you’re not the right person for the job. But there’s nothing in this job that a woman can’t do that a man can; brain, not brawn, is involved.
What was your path?
I worked in a lumber yard in college and was a handyperson on a fix-it crew. I did a little construction, greenhouse additions, passive solar installations. I heard about the [Building Inspector Technology] program at Butte College and said, “That’s it! This is what I want to do!” I worked for the town of Paradise as a building inspector, got hired as a supervising building inspector in Berkeley … and was building officials after two days.
Any regrets about that move?
Probably the hardest part of the transition was not being outside. I didn’t think of that part of the mix. I love the outside world.
Who do you encourage to get into the profession?
It’s hard not to couch this with what’s going on in the field now. For someone to go into the BIT program, work hard for a year and fall into a job is going to be tough because we’re losing jobs. But someone who’s willing to work her way up the ladder, I don’t think anything—including gender—should be an obstacle.
How long do you plan to stay on the job?
For a while—I won’t define what “a while” is. My goal had always been to retire to Chico, but this opportunity provided itself, so I’ve chosen to live here and work here.