With a push of a giant roll of paper plans across a large table, Building Inspection Division Plan Reviewer Shannon Davis gets ready to explain what she does to everyone else who comes to her window in the basement of the Madison Municipal Building.

“I was the first woman who’s been in this position, and they were not expecting to see me,” Davis said. 

“They,” meaning the hundreds of different people, developers, contractors and engineers, who come to Davis’ window to get their next construction plan approved “It could be anyone. It could be a homeowner who has no building experience. It could be a master carpenter. It could be architects, master plumbers, everyone from all walks of life,” Davis said.

On the plans, hundreds of measurements, black lines, shapes, dimensions, doorways, rooms, walls, you name it, if anyone is planning to build in the City of Madison, they need an approved plan and permit.

“I care a lot about people having safe and healthy housing to live in, whether that’s an apartment or single family home,” Davis said.

Home for Davis is a few time zones behind the Midwest in California, where she moved from to Madison about 15 years ago. When she first moved to Wisconsin, she worked on a raspberry farm before realizing her plan needed to change. With degrees in Theater and English Literature, Davis realized a life change may not be so black and white, but something totally outside her plan.

“I should say never have those degrees ever failed me, and [they have] always served me,” Davis said. “But, at some point, when I realized I needed to move into different field of work, I went back to school to Madison College’s Construction and Remodeling Program, and I learned a ton about building and trades in general, and that really prepared me for entry-level work in the Building Inspection Division.”

Davis had no experience with tools, and never grew up with anyone thinking it would be “useful for her to learn.”

“It’s a little bit shocking sometimes that I wasn’t ever offered that skill,” Davis said. “It became apparent to me that I could prove that I could do this, just as well as anybody else, and then share that with other people.”

Davis said cultural norms have evolved over the years, but there’s still room to think more openly.

“Culturally, the times, have they really changed? I still have friends whose daughters and sons, their sons are learning to do things and daughters are learning different things,” Davis said. “[I ask] Maybe your daughter does want to learn how to use the saw and the hammer, maybe she doesn’t just want to be cooking. Give people a chance to do something different.”

A different perspective and a different energy, two things Davis brings to her work every day someone comes to her window, no matter if they understand or embrace evolving cultural norms.

Davis started working at the City of Madison CDA (Community Development Authority) in 2013 as a Housing Specialist, then moved to Building Inspection in 2018 to begin her career officially in the construction industry, one with its own challenges, which she quickly learned to navigate and hopes other women can too.

“I hope that women realize, we’re never stuck in any role that someone has set for us, even if that’s the cultural norm or just something we were explicitly told. Furthermore, you can always make a change, regardless of what your age or your background was,” Davis said.

A lot of things go into making a plan for building, whether it’s for housing or in life like Davis, but plans don’t have to be set in stone, nor do the way we look at them, or live through them. Plans can change, just like any plan in life, or any plan that’s presented to Davis through her window.

“Accept that you may not know everything. Have the confidence, build the confidence in yourself to be able to say I don’t know the answer to that, but I will get back to you, I will ask someone else, and I will learn about it too, so thanks for the opportunity to learn too.”