Construction Industry Demands Green Engineers The Buzz


Engineers play an important role in the future of the planet. And the construction industry is urging them to step up to the plate.

Engineers can design sustainable, environmentally friendly buildings and find ways to save energy. And the pressure is on for engineers to outfit an increasing number of "green" buildings.

Sustainable or green building aims to reduce negative effects on the environment, by using recycled or renewable building materials and renewable energy sources.

Sustainable building is no longer a niche. It has been pushed into the limelight in the construction industry. In fact, many in the field see sustainable design becoming building code in the future. More and more, engineers are being called upon to make buildings environmentally sustainable.

"My personal belief is that if you do not understand the language of sustainable design, your professional days are numbered," says Mark Lucuik. He is a civil engineer.

Sustainable Building -- More Than a Trend

"Sustainability is an important topic," says Nikhil Bodhankar. He is a design engineer in Albany, New York. "The next generations of leaders are the ones who will be equally concerned about sustainability and business profits."

Most sustainable projects are in offices, schools and health-care buildings. But green homes are also in demand. High energy prices are pushing home owners to invest in sustainable options, such as solar energy panels to power homes, designs that allow more natural light into homes, or more effective windows to keep heat in or out.

As sustainable building has become more popular, products have improved in quality. And in some cases, the prices of products have also fallen.

"These are exciting times for the construction industry," says Peter Adams. He is a graduate mechanical engineer who now works as a building scientist.

"Keep in mind that many voices are required to meet the goals of sustainable building -- it will be unlikely that one person or group will hold the key to sustainable building design. Learn to communicate well and to deal constructively with others."

All these factors have changed the way the construction community thinks about sustainability. Sustainable building designs save energy. Workers in buildings with better natural lighting are found to be more productive. Families in green houses that use earth-friendly building materials are healthier.

And the popularity of sustainable building means jobs.

"Architecture, mechanical engineering or construction management are some of the most seamless ways to enter our organization," says Amanda Pursell-Genck. She is the human resources manager at Green Building Services in Portland, Oregon. "Other disciplines that we consider when hiring are urban planning or civil engineering, sustainable business."

How Engineers can Embrace Sustainability

Lucuik says engineers interested in sustainable building should focus on an environmental technical specialty. For example, a focused knowledge of energy use, energy production, natural lighting or building sciences would be helpful.

"Many people want to get into a 'green' business without understanding what is needed. Make yourself useful to designers," says Lucuik. He says engineers also need to understand Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). It provides set requirements for many categories of sustainable building.

While completing his mechanical engineering program, Adams learned about heat transfer, fluid dynamics and thermodynamic principles. He now applies those lessons to buildings and building systems.

Adams says a technical background in engineering helps him understand how buildings work -- both inside and out. "In my opinion, this is fundamental to understanding durability, which is an essential part of sustainability," he says.

Being an engineer helps him in other ways too. He's able to evaluate new products and techniques in sustainable building. He says they don't all live up to their promises.

"An engineering education is also largely based on collaboration, brainstorming and group work, which is helpful during the integrated design approach," says Adams. Engineers and architects must work together on projects. They each bring different skills to the design table.

Bodhankar says the best way to learn about green design is to work on several projects. With some practical experience, he says the future is bright for green engineers. "There are ample new opportunities and new positions all over employing many green building professionals," he says.

How Engineers Make Buildings Green

A builder had considered hiring Lucuik as an energy specialist for a building they were working on. The builder had been thinking about making the building meet LEED requirements. However, since the design was almost finished, they decided against it.

Lucuik challenged the builder. He said he could improve the building's energy efficiency. And he could do it without a big change to the cost, schedule or appearance of the building. He worked for two months using energy modeling software.

"We were able to reduce energy use by 12 percent using lower lighting levels, different windows on different elevations and slightly smaller windows. The capital cost went down, the esthetic did not change, and the schedule was maintained," says Lucuik.

Outlook Sustainable for Engineers

"We are always going to need buildings. And new innovative thinkers will be required as we continue to strive to increase the functionality and longevity of our buildings, while constantly figuring out ways to make them have less of an impact on our environment," says Adams. "This is a challenging task with a long and interesting future."

"One of the things I enjoy the most is the feeling that I am making a significant contribution," says Adams. "I would guess this is true for many people. However, there are specific times when this feeling is heightened, and you know that you have done something extraordinary."

Links

US Green Building Council
This nonprofit organization certifies green buildings and LEED accredited professionals

Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future
See a list of sustainability degree programs in engineering

BuildingGreen
Find information, news and products for sustainable building