career of the month
Broadly speaking, building science involves the study of how heat, air, and moisture move through a building’s components. Building scientists are frequently employed by architectural or engineering firms that are hired to work on residential, commercial, or government building projects, either during initial construction or during subsequent maintenance or renovation phases. Andrea DelGiudice is an associate principal and unit manager for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE) in Falls Church, Virginia. She specializes in building enclosures (exteriors).
My company is hired to solve problems in existing buildings, which is known as forensic engineering, as well to help prevent problems in new construction. When I was a full-time project manager, my weeks were evenly split between field work and office work. We typically start projects by reviewing documents (drawings, specifications, and any reports prepared by others). We then prepare for the field, which may include creating testing plans and even more complex tasks such as developing keys to annotate elevations. Our field visits begin with a visual review and observations, including how field conditions differ from the drawings, as well as any issues we see. Our notes can be incredibly detailed, even mapping locations of cracks. We may then disassemble and inspect small areas and/or perform testing (for instance on water or air). Once our field work is complete, we report on it. Sometimes we also design the repair plan or work with architects on the plan, reviewing their drawings and providing suggestions for the enclosures. Our office time includes team calls and check-ins, along with informal gut checks with colleagues, because all of us regularly reach out for second opinions on details or problems.
Now as a unit manager, I still do some technical project work and get out to the field occasionally, but most of my time is spent managing people and supporting our team. I hold regular coaching meetings, and I review work. I’m also responsible for hiring new people, and for comanaging our office budget, purchasing equipment, and supporting and funding team-building activities.
My favorite part of my job is that I feel I can make the built environment better through my work. One of the things I like least is reviewing or writing specifications, which are manuals that accompany project drawings (together these convey a building’s design). These manuals can be hundreds of pages, and they are written in a very specific format and style. They can be very dense to review or write, but they contain a lot of important information (which I appreciate having in the field), including what products and assemblies can be used, the required quality assurance measures (such as testing and warranties), and certain installation requirements.
I’ve had the chance to work on a lot of buildings, and I’ve gotten to see them in a way other people don’t, such as from the roof or hanging off the side on a swing stage. I’ve also gotten to solve some interesting problems. One project that stood out included an investigation of some crazy-looking, deformed joints on a building with a metal panel exterior. Sealant joints are generally smooth and tooled to be concave, but these were wrinkled and starting to separate. We figured out that, because the panels were so large, their expansion and contraction had damaged the joint sealant while it was still curing and had not yet reached its full strength. Something else that’s very fun about my job is how cool kids sometimes think I am—I’ve had kids excitedly wave to me when they’ve seen me up on a boom lift, making me feel like a rock star.
Growing up, I always liked crafting and creating things and math. I thought that an architecture career could be a good merging of math and art, but as I dug into the degree curriculum, I realized I wanted more depth of engineering knowledge. I ended up getting a dual degree in civil engineering and architecture, which was an intense program that took five and a half years.
I was also still trying to figure out how I would be able to use both my creative and technical sides in a career, so I talked with my advisor, who steered me toward WJE. He told me a story about how the company had once figured out how to repair some falling terra-cotta walrus tusks. That kind of creative problem solving sounded incredible. WJE hired me for an internship between my fourth and fifth years of college, and there I found a passion for making the built environment better through working on enclosures.
During the internship, I did anything from helping with water testing to drafting details in AutoCAD, assisting with submittal reviews (reviewing potential building materials for compatibility with the plans), and editing report figures. After graduation, I was hired for a full-time associate job. I worked my way through several such roles over the span of about seven years, slowly taking on more responsibilities and gaining more technical knowledge. Instead of helping with water tests, I was running them; instead of drafting details someone else directed me to draw, I started developing the details myself. I also started reviewing submittals and architectural drawings and specifications. I trained newer associates, took them out on job sites, and showed them how to review the conditions in the field.
Eventually, I became a project manager, managing my own projects while continuing to mentor younger associates, and worked my way up to larger and more complex projects. A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to become a people manager and decided to step into this new role, because I’ve always enjoyed mentoring and supporting others.
You need a background in building design and construction, as well as knowledge of building science. Knowledge of building enclosure testing is also important. I think it’s very important to have both book knowledge and practical field experience. Many of my colleagues have a four-year degree in architecture, engineering, or a related field, along with a master’s degree, but I also work with a few folks in the industry who have managed to teach themselves on the job.
Try to talk with folks in the industry, think about getting an education in architecture and/or engineering, and take any opportunity you can to go to construction sites. Industry groups sometimes offer jobsite tours, and college students can find tour opportunities through classes. Volunteering with nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity is another great avenue to get exposure to construction. I wish I had spent a summer working construction, but even fixing things around your own home can help you understand how things come together in real buildings. Tinker and be curious about how things fit together, how they work, how they fail or break, and how you can fix them.
DelGiudice’s Education: BA in architecture and BSE in civil engineering, Catholic University of America
Related Careers: architect, architectural engineer, structural engineer, mechanical engineer
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