To expose students to the diversity of environmental career paths they may one day choose to enter, Bowdoin’s Environmental Studies program is hosting a Green Career Series this year. The series brings professionals to campus to talk about their current positions, career trajectories and trends in their field.
The series launched Thursday night with a panel of four professionals who work in green building. The next session, in February, will focus on corporate sustainability. The third session, in April, will look at resilient design in areas such as city planning, urban agriculture or alternative transportation.
At the Thursday night session, Designing for a Greener Tomorrow, the panelists were asked what prompted them to enter the trade. Jason Peacock, who works for Maine Green Performance Building Supply in Portland, answered that his interest in healthy buildings began with a life-threatening illness when he was 18. He was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which he links to his exposure to unsafe building materials.
“Our built environment is the most immediate factor in our everyday health,” Peacock said.
The other panelists mentioned being initially drawn to art, design or art history as undergraduates. Both Colin Schless, a project director at the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, in Portland, and Morgan Law, an architectural designer with Portland’s Kaplan Thompson Architects, earned their graduate degrees in architecture from the University of Oregon. Anne Stephenson completed doctoral work at the University of Chicago on energy efficient renovations of historic bungalows. She now works for Efficiency Maine as a communications specialist.
Over the course of the evening, the panelists repeatedly brought up passive houses, which are considered the highest bar to reach for energy efficiency. “It’s leaving LEED certification in the dust,” Law said. Passive homes, according to the U.S. Passive House Institute, is a well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by interior activities, such as body heat and electrical equipment, even hair dryers.
Peacock said in the years he’s worked in the field, he’s also seen an increase in the availability of higher-performing and non-toxic building materials.
When a student asked whether energy-efficient buildings were affordable to the average earner, the panelists offered different perspectives.
Stephenson pointed out that one doesn’t necessarily have to build a new home to achieve savings in heating bills or to boost the warmth and comfort of a home. Her agency, Efficiency Maine, offers incentives to homeowners who want to upgrade their appliances or weatherize their homes.
Peacock said any step taken toward increasing energy efficiency in a home is commendable. “My company has coined the phrase, ‘pretty good house’,” he said. Indeed, building very thick, highly insulated walls has a diminishing return at some point, he added, making the case for walls with R-values of 30 or 40 rather than 100. (R-values refer to the thermal resistance of materials.)
Peacock did acknowledge that building a new, super insulated home might be costly, because it includes construction costs as well as, most likely, the purchase of land and construction of a driveway and septic system. “It’s not cheap. You’ve got to really want it,” he said. “I think it’s worth dedicating your life to it.”