Green Jobs - Green Building Specialist

Name: Valerie Garrett, LEED AP
Job Title: Coordinator, Regional Green Building Hotline and Green Building Specialist
Where: Portland, OR
Years of Experience: Two years at present job; 18 in career
Education: University of Houston Bachelor of Architecture with Honors, Architectural license, LEED Accredited Professional
Employer: City of Portland Oregon Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Green Building Program
Salary: >See the PayScale Research Center for median salaries in the green building industry.

Green Jobs - Green Building Specialist

Green building. Green energy. Green products. Green is the eco-friendly catchphrase of the century and multiple industries are adopting it as their own. Demand is slowly increasing for both greener products and building design as consumers become aware of the importance of sustainability. This shift toward environmentally friendly consumerism also means the creation of more green jobs.

The following Salary Story provides one example of what a green job can look like. Green building guru Valerie Garrett describes the multiple facets of her job - from education to outreach to marketing and more. As a green building specialist and coordinator of a regional green building hotline, Valerie helps local residents and business owners make their lives and work more green. Keep reading to find out if this green job would be right for you.

PayScale: What is your green building job description?

I enjoy plenty of variety working for the City of Portland's Green Building Program. It is a good fit for a generalist like me. Although employed by the city, I serve the greater Portland Metro Region in the surrounding counties as well. The Regional Green Development Resource Center is a free service created in 2007 to assist businesses and residents in the Region in incorporating more green strategies in their projects. The main service of the virtual center is the Regional Green Building Hotline through which I provide technical assistance, education and outreach, access to incentives and resources on a range of green building topics for residents, non-profits, real estate professionals, contractors, designers and students. I help callers daily with answers to questions about green materials, strategies to reduce a building's carbon footprint, financial incentives, renewable energy, indoor air quality, sustainable sites, and storm water management - whatever is needed.

Other work includes presentations, events and outreach like coordinating the annual Build it Green! Home Tour every fall. I provide content for the green building and hotline web pages. I sit on two steering committees - Portland Green Map project, and OR Residential Building Alliance (ORRBA). I volunteer with OR Tradeswomen, Inc. as a board member. I do the PR for the hotline including helping design printed materials and employing social media (Facebook and Twitter), and ad buys. I enjoy writing articles for trade publications, and also producing technical resource sheets for consumers on such topics as selecting the right heating system, navigating home insulation types, green jobs training, etc. Right now I am concentrating on outreach to contractors, diverse audiences, and a sustainable historic preservation page for the site.

PayScale: What were your steps toward becoming a green building specialist?

I have a passion for architecture, historic preservation, community outreach, social issues like affordable housing and aging-in-place, building smarter and being of service. I became involved with green building in 2000 as the project manager for an affordable housing provider in NE Portland, OR after leaving Houston, TX and my employment there with a small high-end residential architecture firm. I was searching for a simpler life with more meaningful work, less hot weather and beautiful scenery. I was lucky enough to get hired as a project manager for this non-profit developer soon after moving, having no prior PM experience. I learned every day on the job for four and a half years. At that point I decided to leave as a long span of fundraising for the next round of new construction and rehabilitation projects was staring me in the face. Paperwork and grant writing were never my forte. I worked out of my house for three years, then found I missed being in a structured work place. After a long search, I applied for the new position at the City of Portland and was so lucky to get it. So, here I am today.

PayScale: What do you love about your job?

I like that I am the only one doing my particular work within a team of six co-workers with strong skills, diverse areas of sustainability expertise and interests. We can bounce things off one another. I appreciate having freedom and being able to research and explore issues I believe are important to consider in green building. I enjoy being of service and helping smooth the way for those looking for answers to live with a lighter footprint. Recently, a senior came up to me after my short presentation on "Your Green Home Remodel." In this whirlwind 45 minute class we cover home energy efficiency and conservation, buying locally, water conservation, indoor air quality, site preservation and low-toxicity materials. After asking several questions about home attic venting, insulation and weatherization she said "Thank you, your class was enjoyable and fun." That made my day.

PayScale: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your job? 

This is a very fast-paced industry. There is constant learning, research and improvement to be managed. It is a challenge to reach out to diverse audiences and make things interesting and relevant to their daily lives in such a way that does not overwhelm people. Behavior change is something we are working on now as not everyone is a home-owner or building owner who can remodel or build new. Being flexible and thinking fast on your feet and pulling from your experience is always required in this job, as well as asking the right questions to best answer inquiries. It can be challenging to inspire people to take action for an intangible future time they will not be alive to experience and to overcome inertia. Building smaller, preferring quality over quantity and reducing waste is a foreign idea to many. I frequently do not know if action was taken by a caller after I hang up the phone, or send the e-mail. I'd rather not have a desk job and am hatching ways to spend more time away from the computer and phone, although being a hotline makes this difficult to say the least. It can be hard for me being a practical creative in an office of technical thinkers. It can be pretty cool too.

PayScale: Do you recall any crazy moments from working in the green building industry?

I really enjoyed appearing on the local TV morning show here, AM NW, to plug the Build it Green! Home Tour this past September. The two presenters, Dave and Helen, were constantly cracking jokes while off air while I was being miked up and between segments. I had three minutes to talk about the tour details, highlight the green features of three homes, explain the concept of a rain screen and appear perky while sinking deeper and deeper into the largest overstuffed leather chair ever. All this happened way too early in the morning and I was barely awake. Just as I was getting warmed up - our time was over. Ahhh the world of edutainment. One caller wondered if wrapping his home in plastic cling wrap would serve as adequate insulation. I said no (but he would have a well-preserved house) not to mention what the neighbors would think. Questions about composting toilets are always fun. Commissioning a salvaged cedar ultra-cool chicken coop as a raffle prize for Build it Green! tour-goers who turned in their tour evaluations. Don't even get me started on the logistics of having the coop delivered (sans fowl) to the winner.

One of my most rewarding experiences was the space-planning involved in creating a more welcoming storefront space for the bureau's technical and financial services team. This involved working with the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) to get free loaned art pieces on the walls; selecting a color palette of vibrant, uplifting wall colors (low VOC paint of course); and commissioning salvaged wood lobby display furniture from the local non-profit ReBuilding Center – on a tiny budget. Many people appreciated the non-office-like, seemingly non-governmental space.

PayScale: Any advice for those who want to work in the green building industry?

Know what you enjoy doing and seek education, volunteering opportunities or take classes to bolster your education and experience if you are breaking into a new field or branching out. Invest in yourself. Consult with a career counselor or life coach if you are stuck or need suggestions on a direction to take. There are many more college and trade programs offering sustainable content, certificates and degrees now. In my most recent job search, what worked for me was pushing myself to understand my skills and interests and what I required from my employment. I made a list of ten criteria my next job had to have. Of course, this is easier when you've had several jobs and know what you can deal with and what you cannot. It turns out this job met nine out of ten when I went back later and reviewed the list. Walking your walk and talking your talk are important when seeking a career in sustainability.

Network, broadcast and employ social media to your advantage. Community involvement can be a strong consideration for hiring. Employ targeted and focused volunteering with related organizations and non-profits to get your foot in the door and your face and skills known. I volunteered with a non-profit, Solar Oregon, when I was job-hunting. I learned how to make a power point presentation and made a connection with a board member through this experience. It turns out the City's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability was a sponsor of this non-profit which helped in my interview process. This targeted volunteering was an asset to mention in the interview.

Consider applying for a municipal or county job where you can have an impact in your community in addition to searching for firms doing purely sustainability-focused work. I read a lot of books during my transition, from practical resume writing to more philosophical life questions. Rely on your friends to remind you of your strengths and what work you do well. Try and imagine five other people who have your collection of particular skills. Can you? Probably not.

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