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Emerging Green Builders Struggle to Gain Traction

When Joe Snider entered his architecture career following college graduation in 2001, he faced a harsh reality. At the University of Oregon where he received his master’s degree in architecture and historic preservation, sustainability was a campus-wide initiative evident in its integration into the architecture program and the wide array of student activism. Snider was involved in the Ecological Design Center, a campus organization that started the annual Holistic Options For Planet Earth Sustainability (H.O.P.E.S.) Conference, and studied environmental issues in his studio design courses. But as a young professional hoping to make a career out of his passion for sustainability, Snider initially received lukewarm support from colleagues. “As a recent graduate, you have no resume, no leverage to pick and choose any firm,” he says. “There are a lot of people like me coming out of grad school who are excited about sustainable design and want to become LEED-certified, but they are often the only one in a 200-person firm to care about it.” (LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a sustainability benchmarking system established by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Matt Thomas
USGBC CEO Rick Fredrizzi worked on sustainability designs with Boys and Girls Club of Santa Fe in 2005.

For many young professionals, the lack of support is coupled with lack of access to the USGBC’s national membership, which is employer-based, says Meghan Fay, 29, manager of community for the USGBC. If their employer has no interest in green building, young professionals by default are excluded from key resources including USGBC online and discounts to attend national events such as the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, an annual sustainability meeting of more than 12,000 professionals, educators and students. The registration fee, airfare, and hotel accommodations can run to $2,000 or more, a literal show-stopper for financially strained recent graduates, Snider says. For three years in a row, he paid that amount out of pocket to attend. He would then advocate what he learned from Greenbuild to his firm.

Stingy AEC Firms

Many young professionals also have to pay out of pocket for LEED-accreditation study materials and workshops, expenses environmentally-conscious firms would help pay for as part of a professional continuing education program. “In the traditional business world, a company will pay for employees to attend conferences,” Snider says. “But a lot of architecture, construction, and engineering firms express doubt on the validity of green building and do not support their employees desire to become educated in it.”

Students are in the same boat as many young professionals, with no access to national USGBC membership. Although many colleges pay lip service to sustainability, few integrate green building into the curriculum. When Erin Murphy began her community and regional planning masters program at the University of New Mexico, she found little interest in sustainability among practicing planners. “There is a need for people making broad policy master plans to consider the impacts of the physical buildings that make up a community,” Murphy says. “I couldn’t get the education and the technical understanding of LEED without learning the issues and accreditation through the USGBC.” Students and young professionals are often most passionate about sustainability and influential in its success, says Fay. To tap the resource, USGBC set up Emerging Green Builders in 2002. EGB provides discounted membership, networking opportunities and scholarships to students and young professionals within five years of graduation.

EGB began with a forum targeted towards students and young professionals at the first annual Greenbuild conference in 2002. Fay was in charge of arranging the forum room. sShe recalls that the USGBC expected a sparse crowd. At the time she thought, “if only 30 people show up this will be a success.” Nearly 300 students and young professionals crowded into the meeting room. In response, EGB created an eight-member national committeto integrate young people into the green building movement. Snider served on the committee for two years and recently finished his term as chairman. He now serves an advisory role as past chairman. EGB now has nearly 90 groups working with local USGBC chapters across the country.

Essentially mentors for students, many EGB members are actively involved with green firms, and view EGB as an opportunity to network with activists across the United States. Matt Thomas, 31, a founding member of the national EGB, started his own architectural design firm called JMT Design Studio in Taos. The artists’ enclave is a Mecca for progressive green building practices as evidenced by its building codes and houses of adobe, cob and straw bales. When Thomas graduated from Kansas State University and began his job search for green architecture firms, the only avenue he had to look for jobs was a Google search. “After typing in ‘sustainable building’ and ‘green building’, I would look at a particular firm’s Web site and decide if I wanted to send them my resume,” Thomas said. “I had no networking opportunities to work with green building…I ended up finding a small six-month contracting job through the listserv,” Thomas says. These days, EGB is making things easier. “It’s great to be connected with people and firms you might have interest to work for.”

National and local events give members a variety of outlets to meet contacts in the industry. “Green drinks” gatherings offer networking opportunities for members to mingle at local coffee shops or hot spots after EGB meetings. Local activities often have local themes. For example, the New York City chapter put together a green fashion show. “While being a national umbrella, EGB let its members tap in to what’s happening where they are,” says Traci Rose Rider, founding member of EGB and PhD student at North Carolina State University. The North Carolina Triangle chapters prefer “action-oriented, collaborative” activities in the community, Rider says. A group of 70 EGB members toured an old soda bottling plant, and presented the owner with sustainable renovation solutions. In Santa Fe, a local Boys and Girls Club asked for support from the New Mexico EGB chapter to create a LEED-certified design for a new gymnasium. In a day-long community design workshop, EGB worked in groups to create various green proposals that were presented to the national Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Thomas says.

Many members are nontraditional students in their late 20s and early 30s who have gone back to school to make a career out of green building, Snider says. “Their ideas [kept] getting shot down to the point that they are demoralized,” Snider says. “They attend a meeting like ours and realize they aren’t alone.”

Two-thirds of the membership consists of young professionals, and EGB wants to increase its university presence. Recognizing the need for increased sustainability awareness at the University of Miami in Florida, senior architecture major Mark Schrieber founded an EGB chapter on campus last spring. Architecture majors are required to take an “Architecture in the Environment” course, and an elective sustainability course exists. But Schrieber believes green building is not as integrated into the curriculum as it should be. “Certain design studio professors will address the idea of sustainability more than others,” he says, “but I wouldn’t call them ‘green studios.’” Schrieber, now EGB President, in 2005 won a LEED accreditation scholarship through the local USGBC chapter. It paid for study materials, workshops and the exam. He wanted other students to have the same opportunities he did. “The ability to become LEED accredited for free was huge,” he says. “As students, we don’t have extra money lying around. That is our No. 1 goal.” So far, nine students from the U. of Miami EGB chapter and 13 members from the South Florida USGBC chapter received scholarships to attend a LEED workshop.

Mark Schrieber
South Florida EGB chapter members tour a Miami site, gathering information for a pavilion design competition.

While working with the South Florida chapter, Schrieber learned about EGB, and decided to start a chapter to spread awareness and help students become involved in USGBC activities. “No EGB chapter existed in Florida at all,” he says. Since EGB was founded, Schrieber notices, “awareness has really stepped up” on campus and in the region. Student members have access to chapter events, networking, lectures and tours of local sustainable buildings. “We are organizing a tour to an older home in Sarasota that was designed sustainable without knowing it,” he says. “It was built using local materials and natural ventilation, which is more complicated to achieve with today’s infrastructure.” The University of Miami chapter has a listserv of 50 primarily Architecture majors (around 30 students regularly attend meetings), but Schrieber would like to see a diverse group from all aspects of the building sector. In the process of becoming an official club, Schrieber says he hopes to receive university funding. “My goal is to send at least two students to the Greenbuild conference for free each year.” The South Florida USGBC chapter now hosts their lecture series on the University of Miami campus, and is currently in the process of creating chapters at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University.

Students and young professionals have access to a monthly newsletter, LEED certification resources and discount prices for USGBC functions. Scholarships are available to attend USGBC events and LEED accreditation workshops. EGB also hosts an annual design competition that Thomas helped start. Local chapters must design a sustainable building. “Originally a national competition, we realized we could make more impact by having groups choose a building they want to design,” Snider says. “I’ve heard great stories of students getting out into the community to make a positive change.” This year, 19 local chapters will compete and the winner will vie for a national award at Greenbuild LA 2007 in Los Angeles.

EGB is not solely for young people in the engineering, construction management and architecture fields, Murphy says. The organization hopes to expand its member ratio to individuals outside of the building sector. Fay says. “We are…bringing in realtors, developers, those involved in business and government--all kinds of people with different perspectives.”

Marketplace demand, economic feasibility and government legislation for green construction are driving building sector firms to develop a vested interest in sustainable design practices. Ironically, the young professionals whose ideas were once ignored are now a source of expertise for their firm. As LEED project manager, Snider had successfully helped his former firm design its first LEED certified building. “Once they learned, they were excited about it,” he says.

Through his volunteering with EGB, Snider seized an opportunity to put his passion for sustainability to work. He is opening a Florida office in Boca Raton for Environmental Dynamics, an architecture and sustainability-consulting firm based in Santa Fe. “Sustainability in Florida is behind the times,” he says. “Florida is five to 10 years behind in green design and construction.” A multitude of South Florida cities and counties are on the verge of a sustainability movement with legislation that will require LEED-certified buildings similar to what is already happening in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco. Snider hopes to expand EGB in Florida, which in turn will help build his consulting business via networking. “In wearing two hats, I achieve both my goals of obtaining business and educating the community,” he says.

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