It’s no accident that HeatSpring instructor Marc Rosenbaum knows quite a bit about virtually all facets of the building science industry. When he began his career nearly 40 years ago, the industry and collective knowledge surrounding it didn’t exist yet. He didn’t have a choice but to become a generalist. 

For folks launching their building science careers today, it’s easy to get laser-focused and highly specialized in one area. For the relentlessly curious, like Marc, this can feel quite limiting. In this short video, Marc shares advice on how to have a diverse and varied career in building science.

Brit: You’re getting close to retiring and you’re talking about the importance of generalists. What would you recommend to folks who are in the earlier part of their careers? How can they be really knowledgeable about different things so they don’t pigeonhole themselves throughout their career?

Marc: First of all, that is a really hard question. So you’re in a job and you’ve got bills or you might have a family and you’re doing the same thing every day. You’re looking at a slice of what you’d really prefer to be looking at.

Certainly you can go to conferences and get training. If you’re fortunate, your company will be paying for it. But sometimes your company isn’t going to pay for it. 

In the year 2005, [a group] of us went to Europe for a little over three weeks –  five countries. We went to look at leading edge buildings to see what the Europeans were doing. We did a lot of homework ahead of time to find out what the buildings were, who we should talk to, contacted people, got amazing tours from architects and engineers and builders. We also talked a lot to the occupants to be able to separate the hype from what’s [actually] their experience in this building. When we came back, we did a lot of presentations on that.

Bruce Coldham, who was the spark plug for it, an architect friend of mine who’s now retired, called it the Green Grand Tour, after the days when people went to Europe and did the grand tour. This was the Green Building Grand Tour.

 I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “how do you get a grant to do that?” I said, “we didn’t!” We wrote checks. It was our money. It was our education. We thought that this is something worth taking the time, because it’s three weeks of no income. It’s an outflow of money. It’s an expense.

Sometimes if you need to learn stuff, you need to learn stuff. It isn’t always just [about] who pays for, or even that someone else will pay for it. That’s one piece. 

The other piece is looking around – if it’s a bigger company – and seeing what other people are doing that you want to learn and figuring out how that can happen.

Even if it’s moving every couple of years to a different job within a company. That’s one way to do it. The hardest thing is really getting clear on what you like doing – what really motivates and juices you. 

My theory is that people who are smart and hard working are good at many more things than the things that really feed them. It’s not hard to get pigeonholed, because you’re doing something in an organization that meets other people’s needs and they give you a lot of positive feedback about that, but it’s not what you’re wanting to do. 

Over my working career, people have come up to me many times and said, “I want to do what you do.” It’s so gratifying. With the courses that HeatSpring does, which are so amazing, you can bring people to a certain point, but then you have to get your hands dirty. 

It’s such a hard question, but it’s easy to get pigeonholed.

Some of my closest colleagues are people that would go nuts doing the same thing every day. That’s definitely true for me. It’s also mental health therapy to be a generalist for some of us, because we don’t want to do the same thing. 

We’re always learning. In this field, I feel like we are continuing to discover, like the whole thing in the last 10 years of embodied carbon. In the last two or three [years], people are really talking about it. For the people that looked at it early on, we had no data. The first calculations I did were using English data from the University of Bath. The embodied energy and embodied carbon of something made in a place where electricity is either cleaner or dirtier, it’s different. So you’re working with a database that isn’t reflective of where you are. 

I think that our tools are better, but we’re always learning. Every time you peel the onion, the next layer is more complex than you thought, particularly living systems. 

At the beginning of COVID, I took an eight-week online seminar on embodied carbon and wood. The woman who put it together, is a brilliant woman and an architect and engineer by training. She’s also an academic at this point. She founded the Carbon Leadership Forum. She’s so connected and she had a huge range of people, like industry forestry people and manufacturers. It wasn’t slanted one way. Every week was on a different aspect of it. 

I really got this sense that – wow, living systems are complicated (not that that’s a revelation) and that the simple answer is probably wrong. 

I think one of the exciting things for a young person is you’re not in a field where all the answers are there. That’s exciting to me. But you have to be a person who, emotionally and psychologically, can live with uncertainty.

I tell people, “do this.” And it’s my best judgment. It’s not a provable fact in many cases. Does that make sense? So people need to know themselves.