Get a Job as a Green Building Professional

You can a start a career that gives to the environment at the same time it earns green in your wallet. Here's how.
By Holley Henderson
November 2012
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For those considering a new career or a career change focused on green and sustainable building and design, “Becoming a Green Building Professional” is perfect for underemployed architects and other building and design professionals who want to reinvent and renew their careers, as well as students considering such a career. This is a vital and informative guide to a growing field.
Cover Courtesy Wiley


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For anyone looking to break into the field, Becoming a Green Building Professional (Wiley, 2012) gives concise, practical advice, plus a sense of the job market’s coming direction. Author Holley Henderson is a member of the LEED steering committee and supplements her knowledge with first-hand interviews of others in the field. In this excerpt from the book, find an introduction to green building and design and its many benefits as a career. 

Why Build Green?

Green building is a profession that seeks to give back more than it takes from our natural sur­roundings—the environment at large—and, ultimately, to help preserve the health of both people and our planet. It is a lofty goal, and one that inspires most people in this career field both person­ally and professionally. Yet there is no one right way to become a green builder, nor is there only one type of green building expert. The field is vast and diverse, full of numerous jobs and special­izations, all working together toward the same ideal: to create buildings that are sustainable, and ultimately regenerative.

Consider the people who create a green building. It is not just one, or even two, sets of people or teams that come together to plan, design, erect, and maintain a building. Instead, it is a well-integrated group of individuals, all of whom have varying backgrounds and job titles. For green building, the roles include an environmental consciousness where realtors and land developers focus on the planned structure’s return on investment and overall sustainable strategy. Architects draft and design the framework of the building itself; interior designers sculpt the healthy interior space; engineers fill in the efficient systems inside, from plumbing to electrical to mechanical. Contractors make sure all the eco-conscious elements are properly installed during construction; and facility managers keep the place green after the sawdust is cleared and the last window is installed.

This book seeks to introduce readers to the green building profession, to explain how to be­come part of this quickly growing career field—and also, importantly, to inspire. This job path is new and not easily mapped, but it is one that provides great rewards to those who persevere.

As renowned green architect William McDonough once said, “Our goal is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power—economically, equita­bly, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed—period! Which parts of this don’t you like?”

The Need for Green Building

All over the world, cities are becoming ever taller, ever bigger, and ever more architecturally in­novative. From concrete and steel structures that hover more than 2,700 feet above the Earth to urban areas packed with more than twenty million people, humans have pushed inventiveness past the limits of what was ever thought possible.

But such innovation comes with a tradeoff, and much of that fallout is environmental. In the United States alone, according to the Energy Information Association, buildings account for more than 30 percent of the waste output of the country, up to half of the energy usage, and almost three quarters of the nation’s electricity consumption.

Large impacts abound, many of which are created—or contributed to, in large part—by the built environment. Three of these key issues are air pollution, energy consumption, and water scarcity.

Air pollution: One can survive a few days without food or water, but only minutes without access to air. An easy problem to ignore by virtue of its typical invisibility, poor air quality in buildings often takes the form of fine particulates, toxic emissions, and mold. A common contributor to poor air quality is increased volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) are emitted as gases by everything from paints to building mate­rials to furniture to cleaning supplies. Energy production, consumption, and leaching of toxic building materials can affect air quality as well. All of these air concerns can cause serious health problems, such as asthma, upper respiratory illnesses, developmental issues for children, and even cancers.

Energy Consumption: Energy is central to the mechanics of most buildings. Air cooling and heating, lighting, cooking, and electrical needs all require energy to function. Environmental energy concerns range from the limited resource of fossil fuels to climate change impacts, which many have argued contribute to rising sea levels, changing food supplies, and the eventual specter of displacing millions of people.  

Water Scarcity: Water is one of the most essential elements for human survival, used for everything from drinking and hygiene to cooking and tending crops. And indeed, a person can only live for two to ten days without water. But the planet’s supply of fresh water is rapidly dwindling, and our needs for it are quickly expanding. A 2009 report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that global wa­ter needs will increase by 40 percent by the year 2030, while shrinking watersheds, droughts, and rising sea levels are at the same time resulting in decreasing worldwide supplies

A Reason to Care

As a collective group, human beings can—and should—be the solution leaders for a sustainable environment. As Anthony D. Cortese, Sc.D., president of Second Nature, explains:

To make this a reality we must realize that the road to sustainability is one of culture and values as much as it is about scientific and technological development.  

It must be guided by the arts, humanities, social and behavioral sciences, religion and other spiritual inspiration as well as the physical and natural sciences and engineering, in other words, through the fundamental framework of learning and culture. It must also be guided by commitment to have all humans have their basic needs met and have the opportunity for a life of fulfillment.

These ideas must be the heart of the design principles of a healthy, just and sustainable society—principles based on a human consciousness in which we apply the Golden Rule to our dealings with all current and unborn humans as well with the rest of life that evolved on earth. To work, these principles must become the basis for society’s economic and governance framework and, therefore, a fundamental part of all education.

Can this be done?  Yes, because we must. As owners, planners, designers, engineers, constructors, and managers of our physical built en­vironment that sits on the Earth, why wouldn’t we be the instigators to a more sustainable future?

Green Building Professional Leadership

A green building professional is not just a nine-to-five workhorse. Instead, as with politicians and pastors, one of the interesting things about green building professionals is that their personal life is often an integral part of their professional life. As leaders working toward a more sustainable world, green building professionals are accountable for their entire lifestyle and actions, rather than just what they do in their office hours. Everything green building professionals do is taken into account and carefully considered, including the following:

• Region where they are located: Urban or suburban?
• Preferred transportation methods: Walk, bike, train, drive, or fly?
• Food sources: Local, seasonal, and organic?
• Goods purchased: Fair trade, manufacturer values, and content of product?

Often these values and sustainable objectives are part of a green building professional’s overall ethos and mindset—and green building professionals are always looking for areas of improvement in making their green footprint even smaller. Perhaps an environmental speaker who flies often for business will decide to only ride his bike, in combination with mass transit, while he is at home; or an environmental consultant may become a vegetarian to reduce her carbon footprint. While no one can be environmentally perfect or lead a no-footprint life, efforts to reduce one’s footprint are often noted by others in the field and outside green building, and these sustainable actions authenticate a dedication to eco-ideals.

Should environmental issues not be enough to persuade one about the importance in going green, there are a myriad of business and financial benefits to take into consideration. Building owners can brag about their green credentials to an increasingly savvy (and demanding) consumer market, result­ing in the ability to charge higher lease rates and therefore realize a higher return on investment, as well as a preferred market position and demonstrated leadership in their field. There is less need for expensive building upgrade costs when green regulation takes effect, and additional money is saved through reduced insurance costs, tax rebates, and incentives.  As for saving money through health-related issues? Better building health has been demon­strated, resulting in better inhabitant health, thereby reducing absenteeism for illness, increasing work productivity and test scores, and ensuring long-term retention.  Better for both the environment and the bottom line.

World of Gray

Paper or plastic? It is a common question at the grocery store. Often, however, there is no easy answer. Questions of raw materials extraction, packaging, transportation, associated water/ energy use, health implications of the materials, reuse, and a variety of other factors come into play. Even if you say no to paper or plastic bags, and you hoist your own bag onto the counter, questions remain: Where did your bag come from? What is it made out of? Who made it? How will it be cleaned? The dilemma over even this seemingly straightforward decision can become overwhelming.

But there is a simple solution. When faced with an issue that seems grayer than a crisp black or white, one way to move forward is to use the precautionary principle. A decision-making tool, in its most basic form, this principle means “better safe than sorry.” The precautionary principle helps one decide if an action should or should not be taken, when risks are unclear. This is a fundamental premise in the mindset of the green building professional. In other words, the pre­cautionary principle maintains that if there is any suspicion of possible harm to the public or envi­ronment from taking a specific action or implementing a policy, the burden of proof falls on those taking the action to show that it is the least harm.

Taking all environmental issues into account, the built environment and the precautionary principle is where the nexus of green building occurs.

More Information on Green Building

So who in the United States is responsible for green building? From a federal government perspec­tive, it’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the government agency begun in 1970 to create and enforce laws regarding human health and the natural environment.

The definition of “green building” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is as follows:

Green building is not a new concept. For thousands of years, passive solar design (daylighting versus electrical lighting) and the use of local and regional materials have been incorporated into the creation of buildings, for practical reasons. More recently, what we know as the modern green building movement was instigated by the U.S. energy crisis in the 1970s, in which the cost of gasoline fuel dramatically spiked, calling attention to the need for energy-efficiency research and alternative fuels.  

Thanks in large part to increased green building activity in recent years—both top-down (govern­ment requirements/corporate incentives) and bottom-up (consumer demand)—sustainability has become a pervasive notion in day-to-day life. For the most part, when people say “green” these days, it doesn’t indicate Crayola’s latest crayon color, but is instead recognized as referring to an environmental attribute.

As referenced in the historical “Timeline” feature, green building was mandated from the “top” by the federal government for their buildings, and many state and city governments followed suit. From the grassroots bottom, greater consumer awareness calls for eco-action in local neigh­borhood communities, buildings and homes—and corporations, manufacturers, and government officials are taking note.

Thanks in large part to increased green building activity in recent years—both top-down (govern­ment requirements/corporate incentives) and bottom-up (consumer demand)—sustainability has become a pervasive notion in day-to-day life. For the most part, when people say “green” these days, it doesn’t indicate Crayola’s latest crayon color, but is instead recognized as referring to an environmental attribute.

Green building was mandated from the “top” by the federal government for their buildings, and many state and city governments followed suit. From the grassroots bottom, greater consumer awareness calls for eco-action in local neigh­borhood communities, buildings and homes—and corporations, manufacturers, and government officials are taking note.

Additional eco-conscious tools are being added to the market that also help the cause of eco­consciousness, the best-recognized example perhaps being the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, an internationally recognized green building certification program. Such tools have provided the industry with a user-friendly vehicle for widespread adoption and rapid market trans­formation.

What Is a Green Building Professional?

Because it involves so many different aspects, the green building career field includes everything from traditional careers such as architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, interior design, construction, facility management, or real estate—professions that can incorporate sustainability into their approach. It is also possible to specialize as a green building professional consultant, which is a relatively new field.

So what unifies this diverse group of building professionals and brings them together to be “green”? Regardless of each professional’s role or specialization, all sustainable building experts use triple-bottom-line thinking in their approach.

A term coined by John Elkington in his 1998 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, “triple bottom line” simply means creating balanced decisions that take the following factors into account equally:  Economic factors, social factors and environmental factors.

These three elements are also referred to as profit/people/planet, or the three pillars.Another commonly associated term used with the triple bottom line and green building is “sustainability.”

The term was originally defined in the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987 and generally means meeting current needs without impacts on the needs of future generations.An example of sustainability would be producing food for the current population and ensuring that the land, water, and other resources necessary for food production remain for the upcoming generations.

Another term similar to sustainability is “regenerative”; however, it extends beyond human needs to all species and offers an opportunity for lost ecosystems to be regenerated. When first in­troduced to public discussion, some “green” terms may have had specific, separate meanings, but as more people have become involved and invested in environmental goals, many of these words have merged and become interchangeable in their usage. In that regard, the following terms in this book all attempt to describe and relate to a similar approach:

A green building professional integrates these principles of triple bottom line into all phases of a building’s life, from inception to demolition. Here are just a few ways in which different green building professionals can foster better communities and buildings:

• Urban planners and developers consider urban context, community connectivity, and transportation.
• A green building professional integrates these principles of triple bottom line into all phases of a building’s life, from inception to demolition.
• Civil engineers ensure that the building and site work well with the surrounding infrastructure, thereby minimizing ecological impact.
• Landscape architects design parks and vegetation to connect the natural and built environments.
• Architects and interior designers create healthy buildings and spaces that include efficient and well-considered resources.
• Mechanical engineers specify natural ventilation or high-efficiency filtering equipment, supplying fresh air to the occupants.
• Facility managers maintain the building with the highest-efficiency equipment and the lowest-impact maintenance program.
• Real estate professionals negotiate leases that create a win-win for both landlord and tenant.
• Green building consultants are generalists in all of these fields. Their typical specialty is in maximizing green building performance across all of these areas.

Green building professionals range in their scope and scale, creating a vast array of structures from commercial buildings to residential homes. This book, however, concentrates more specifical­ly on communities and commercial buildings—including civic, office, education, healthcare, and hospitality—and explores how green building professionals can influence these buildings’ design, construction, and operation.

Professional Legacy

When considering becoming a green building professional (or joining any profession), contemplate your ideal legacy.

Some of the most respected workers in America are doctors, nurses, police officers, firefight­ers, government workers, lawyers, teachers, parents, business owners, nonprofit professionals, poli­ticians, and scientists. In concept, the common thread in all of these fields is the desire to create a positive impact on health, safety, business, and science—on a varying scale from one individual (or animal) up to entire cities, states, or the country as a whole. A green building professional has the same common thread of helping in mind, and sews it into the fabric of our communities, build­ings, homes, and ultimately, our lives.

Green Job Statistics

When thinking about a career path, it is useful to evaluate the future of the job market you are considering. By all accounts, the green build­ing field will only get stronger over the coming years. One well-researched report was released in late 2009, prepared by the prestigious con­sulting firm Booz Allen, which was hired by the U.S. Green Building Council to better define where the market is headed. The company looked specifically at jobs within the green building industry.

The results are extremely heartening. Booz Allen projected that the number of jobs in green building will increase fourfold by 2013, going from two million to nearly eight million jobs within just four years, which will gener­ate more than $554 billion additional dollars in GDP, and more than $396 billion in earned wages. As for the USGBC, its LEED-related economic outlay has already supported 15,000 jobs—and is projected to support 230,000 jobs by 2013.

As another example, an annual international survey called the Carbon Salary Survey released 2010 results on green jobs in a variety of fields. Of the 1,200 people surveyed, interesting findings included the facts that three-quarters of those in green jobs are satisfied with their work and 35 percent feel more secure in their positions than they did one year ago.Moreover, the study found that green jobs are available across the world in the renewable energy field, perfect for those who want to work and live abroad.

Green as in Salary

Income estimates for various green building professionals range widely and are updated frequently, so generally it is best to check reliable online sources and reputable annual surveys for the most current information. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a website and associated tools dedicated specifically to the green building field. As a basic reference: in 2011, an environmental engineer is estimated by that site to make around $80,000 a year.Another resource, PayScale, is a massive database of salary profiles for a variety of jobs, and it gives another good sense of current market salaries. This resource gives job seekers accurate numbers and negotiation leverage for interviews; average salaries for related building professionals in 2011 ranged from $76,000 for a mechanical engineer to $67,000 for an architect to $58,000 for a construction project manager. These fig­ures do vary, however; the Carbon Salary Survey found that the average salary for those they polled in the United States was $104,000.

How to Get Into the Field

Many different paths lead to the green building field, which means that each path may be custom-tailored or combined to fit specific needs and interests. These paths will be explored in greater depth in Chapter 3, but as a brief overview, here are the three main paths that can be taken: learn, involve, and collaborate.

Learn: The first path into the green building field is via educational knowledge and academic skills. This could be through formal higher education, training, hands-on experience, or competitions.

Involve: Another wide path to take could be volunteering at a local nonprofit organization, or a more formal mentoring or internship program where an experienced professional demonstrates how to incorporate green building principles.

Collaborate: One of the most important avenues to being hired in any profession is networking with existing and new relationships. Another form of collaboration is a formal engagement with a green recruiter that actively seeks an alignment between a candidate’s skills and job opportunities. Lastly, a career coach can support those who know they want to enter the green building field but are unsure of their specific area of interest or how to transition into their chosen career.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Becoming a Green Building Professional by Holley Henderson, published by Wiley, 2012. 


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