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Green-tech construction educators stay ahead of the curve

Local schools adopt latest “smart building” concepts in curricula

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Back on the road to recovery, green technology is the construction industry’s new normal, and "reduce before you produce" its mantra.

Although sustainable construction jobs already exist, new opportunities are being created in wind and solar power, fuel cells, heating, cooling and lighting, and landscape design and installation. The need to reduce existing building costs is spurring demand for energy auditors and compliance personnel trained in sustainable practices.

Educators training the next generation of architects, engineers, builders and inspectors know that incorporating California Green Building Standards Codes (CALGreen), sustainability and energy efficiency into the curriculum is crucial for students and adult learners to maintain a competitive advantage. And that means staying ahead of the curve.

Updating course material is an on-going process in the three-, four- and five-year apprenticeship programs offered through the San Diego Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors. Director of Education Tracey Barrett said apprentices in all trades are educated in “green awareness” (green construction, products and materials, and the role trades play in an increasingly eco-conscious building environment), as well as energy efficiency and alternative energy systems such as solar and wind turbines.

Barrett said ABC-San Diego submitted curriculum for a two-year solar/photo-voltaic apprentice program over a year ago, but has yet to hear back from the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards, the state authority that regulates apprenticeship training.

Palomar Community College has added a CALGreen Codes course to its construction inspection certificate program to teach students about new Title 24 regulations, state standards for constructing commercial and residential buildings to maintain energy efficiency. Program director Mollie Smith said the course is also required for architecture students.

“Typically, instructors do not add entirely new courses but embed sustainable practices into the courses,” Smith said. “All of my programs have updated their curriculum to integrate the newest technologies and compliance with the new construction codes governing sustainability.”

In 2011, Southwestern Community College began offering a Sustainable Energy Studies certificate of achievement program. It emphasizes sustainable building design, passive energy strategies, and the application of appropriate heating, cooling and ventilation systems. LEED-certified instructors teach the courses.

Southwestern professor of architecture Corey Breininger said the first year it was offered 30 students enrolled, but due to statewide education funding cuts, the course is not being offered this semester. He also said the department recently bought $20,000 of testing equipment so students can learn how to perform energy audits.

An SDG&E grant allowed the school to host a workshop to teach students how to perform energy audits in existing buildings with the idea of training them to become “smart” building technicians.

“One of the things we’re hearing about is that sometime in the near future, cities will require that an energy audit be performed after a new building is completed to ensure that the building runs according to plans and to ensure efficiency,” Breininger said.

Also at Southwestern, a sustainable landscape practices associate of science degree prepares students for jobs related to both horticultural practices and sustainable principles for careers in landscape design, construction, maintenance, nursery production and sales.

The approach to incorporating green technology studies at San Diego State University’s J.R. Filanc Construction Engineering and Management program is both focused and distributed, according to department Chairman Dr. Kenneth Walsh. Aspects of green technology are imbedded in courses like estimating, scheduling and project management, but three years ago a new course on environmentally conscious construction was offered to undergraduate engineering students.

The course teaches sustainable construction practices and applies industry standards for environmental and energy performance of buildings. Although it attracted only six students the first semester, Walsh kept it on the schedule. The last time it was offered, 20 students took the course. He attributes increased interest to student awareness that companies look at newly hired college graduates as a means of bringing in new technology to their firms.

“Students recognized that they were at a disadvantage if they didn’t take it, but also there’s been pressure from the industry and from our advisory board,” Walsh said.

For more than a decade, SDSU’s College of Extended Studies has been offering construction-related online certificate programs. Seven years ago Wendy Evers, executive director of new initiatives and outreach, was tasked with developing a green building program.

At the time, Evers said there wasn’t much information on green building, but green legislation across the country and in the state was going gangbusters. With input from industry leaders and an advisory board, Evers put together a green building construction certificate program.

“People from all over the country want to learn more or want to be able to build green,” Evers said. “We developed this program, and now people from all over the world take our classes.”

Each nine-week online course is offered three times annually with 15 to 30 students enrolled in each course. Being an SDSU student isn’t a requirement; in fact, Evers said most people enrolled in the program don’t care about receiving credits or transferring credits toward a degree. The program draws all types of construction-related professionals from designers, subcontractors and builders to facility managers, planning commissioners and active military personnel.

“Most want to take courses for their career,” Evers said. “We give a well-rounded perspective to adult learners interested in implementing sustainable building tools, practices and strategies.”

-James is an Encinitas-based freelance writer.

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