CaGBC Ask the Expert – SAIT and George Brown College instructor Tracey Loston talks about why continuing to learn is a key facet of a successful green building career

As we approach September and the kids head back to school, it's important to remember that you're never too old to learn new things. While the saying might be cliché, it's certainly true when it comes to a career in green building and sustainability. Regardless of where you are in your career, the rapid changes due to innovation in this industry require continual education.

Which is why for this month's Ask the Expert we spoke to Tracey Loston, an architectural technologist and instructor who is currently teaching courses at two schools known for their dedication to sustainability and green building: George Brown College in Toronto, and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary.

1. Tell me how you got involved in green building and became an instructor at two incredibly innovative schools, George Brown College and SAIT Polytechnic.

I became involved in green building from a passion developed in college in the 1990s, fostered by conversations with like-minded professors and fellow students. Since then, it has been amazing to witness the change in our industry on a variety of fronts, and I have grown along with it.

I was fortunate enough to have taught the first CaGBC LEED course offering at SAIT Polytechnic, based on my experience in the industry. Two of the students in the course were instructors of SAIT's full-time Architectural Technologies program, and they were instrumental in providing me with the opportunity to join their team and integrate the course into the full-time program. This fall I am really looking forward to teaching Environmental/Emerging Building through Distance Education at SAIT Polytechnic in addition to several sections of the third semester studios for the Architecture Technology and Sustainable Design III course at George Brown College.

2. Why do you think students are interested in learning about green building?

I always ask students in the very first class: "Why are you taking this course and what do you want to get out of it?" When it comes to the CaGBC courses, the vast majority want to know how they can make a more positive difference in the work they do. Many mature students are successful professionals wanting their work to have more meaning. Regardless of age or experience that seems to be the most common answer. Secondly, many employers value this type of knowledge, and students are looking to expand their marketable skill set. Bottom line is people care, and I love that.

3. Both these schools are also very sustainability-minded. Do you think learning in this type of environment enhances the experience?

Beyond the physical environment, both schools provide opportunities for students to engage in that were not around when I went to college. At SAIT, ARIS (Applied Research and Innovation Services) is fabulous for providing additional learning opportunities for students. Collaboration between ARIS and academic departments is growing. Being able to take students on field trips to see a Net Zero energy house under construction, tour the trades schools and have access to ongoing research all on campus is priceless. Having current researchers (along with student researchers) available to present as guest speakers is an added bonus.

One of my favorite presentations was from a first year architectural student who had worked with the solar lab and shared tips and tricks to designing for future solar applications. Another was related to the actual results of a greywater system installation in a residential application in Calgary, before the research was used by the City to provide guidelines for homeowners. One team of students in my class took it upon themselves to research, design and build a living wall and gained academic credit in addition to work experience.

Along with two of my colleagues, a group of students designed, assembled and installed "litres of light" from recycled pop bottles in Guatemala. These experiences are life-changing. I loved the fact that researchers and students would share results including things that didn't work. Although I am not personally involved (yet!), I am really looking forward to the opening of George Brown's state-of-the-art Green Building Centre, transforming the existing Green Technologies Research  into a hub connecting the Canadian construction sector with applied research opportunities. George Brown is also placing tremendous focus on BIM, which is another huge innovation in our industry that supports and plays a key role with integrated design. The fun thing about teaching at both of these schools is I also get to keep learning!

4. Why do you think it would be important for someone who is already well established in their career to learn about green building or sustainability?

As a perpetual student myself, I see tremendous value in lifelong learning. Many mature students are highly successful because they come to the table with a knowledge base that is easy to build upon. The key is to pick an area or a topic that is of interest. Secondly, I am overwhelmed by the incredible amount of talented individuals I meet as college students. Just as employers are looking for skills or credentials, so too are top students looking for employers who share their values. Besides, school is fun!

5. Where do you think green building/sustainability is headed next in terms of education or just in general?

I think transformative change begins with education, formal or informal. Two areas I would like to see continue to evolve are collaboration between disciplines in the academic environment and increased opportunities for applied research. The traditional experience in the AEC industry is competitive in nature, and I see it becoming more collaborative. Teamwork is used to prepare students for the real world, but it is often limited to one discipline. Imagine if we could build a multi-disciplinary team at the academic level and throw in an applied research project? I would love to see that type of collaboration grow outside of individual programs and have classes combining teams of students from different disciplines and having them work together. That's my dream assignment.

6. What's the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone looking to pursue a career in the green building industry?

Follow your passion. Talk to as many people in industry as possible to get different perspectives and discover niche opportunities that may interest you. Use your time in college or university to experiment, challenge, ask questions, collaborate, grow and make authentic connections. Care about what you do.  Care about your colleagues. Choose your career path wisely. Look for opportunities that will take you where you want to go. Whether you like what you do or not, it shows, and it matters. Always follow your passion.

Looking to start your fall off right by taking some new green building education? The CaGBC offers a variety of education options for both current student and industry professionals – from LEED workshops to webinars to full-time student courses. For more information, visit CaGBC Education now to get started.