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Jeslin Varghese from GBRI talks about his background and work providing sustainability education

Jeslin Varghese is the co-founder and Director of Sustainability at GBRI, an online sustainability education provider that gives professionals access to affordable training and exam prep to help them gain green credentials (LEED, WELL, and AIA/CE). The goal of GBRI is to promote responsible development by equipping professionals with the education they need to make a difference through their work.

Jeslin kindly answered our questions about his professional background and his work with GBRI.

What’s your background?

Born in India and seasoned in America, I would like to identify myself as a social entrepreneur and a global citizen. Currently, I wear multiple hats (don’t we all?) when it comes to work and passion. During the day, I work as the Director of Project Controls at Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Construction and Development (C&D) arm that oversees more than $50bn in projects across multiple transportation agencies in N.Y. City. Public transportation using buses, trains, ferries, and subways is one of the better sustainable options when it comes to reducing the negative environmental impacts of urban mobility. On an average weekday, NYC subway ridership is more than 5 million, and with COVID-19, this number has shrunk by 70%. Through its transportation and operations, MTA helps avoid over 17 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. Though I do not get to work on LEED projects anymore, my current job is a rewarding experience where I get to analyze project data (cost, schedule, manpower and other metrics) on a regular basis and produce meaningful charts, graphs, Key Performance Indicators (KPI) dashboards for stakeholders. That’s my day job. And then I have my social entrepreneurial passion projects – GBRI and i-believe.org.

GBRI is an online Sustainability Education Provider founded with the belief that the best way to encourage responsible development is to provide resources to the builders, designers and engineers who are crafting our future. Our mission is to make sustainability resources affordable and accessible to everyone across the globe. Our courses are approved by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the U.S Green Building Council (USGBC). I co-founded GBRI in 2010. Through GBRI, I have had the opportunity to create 100s of sustainability courses and deliver lectures at multiple Universities in North America and India. Apart from these two passions, I have a non-profit organization called “I-believe”, that I founded in 2012 with a mission to create sustainable communities around the world through education, empowerment and training. Through i-believe.org, I am able to pay it forward to the next generation. Now how did a boy from India get here -that’s a story I will save for another day!

How did you get to GBRI?

After completing my bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET), I moved to Bangalore, India to do an internship with a software company to complete my software Engineering diploma from the National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) that I had enrolled simultaneously with my civil engineering degree. Back in the early 2000s, given the employment opportunities in the I.T. industry as compared to construction, most engineering students learned a computer program or two in pursuit of a career in I.T. As there was some administrative delay in starting the internship program, I ended up taking a part-time gig as a site engineer for a local builder (Flash Engineers and Builders) who built eco-friendly residential and commercial projects for sustainability architects such Jaisim Fountainhead and Mistry Architects. This decision was completely random, and little did I know at that time, that this short-term gig would turn into a fulltime job where I spent the next 2 years site engineering multiple sustainability projects in Bangalore. To be honest, let alone LEED, I did not even know what green buildings were back then. But that all changed in the next 2 years where I got to work under an amazing boss, and with multiple passionate architects who utilized local materials to design and built eco-friendly homes. I enjoyed executing the design, interacting with construction workers, learning to estimate construction materials, and prepare a bill of quantities for client review. During this time, I also read about and drew inspiration from Laurie Baker, a British architect who made India his home where he addressed the housing needs of the poor, designed, and built environmentally friendly low-cost buildings. In retrospect, what was to be a part-time gig turned into my first real job, where I learned a lot and inspired and paved the way for the rest of my career. Not only did this experience fuel my interest in sustainability but also made me realize how little I knew about construction management. With software engineering out of the window and now with my newly found passion in sustainability and construction management, I applied and got selected to Texas A&M University’s Construction Engineering and Management program.

Coming to America – In the next 2 years at Texas A&M University, I continued my interest in sustainability by taking more classes in sustainable construction and earning my LEED accreditation in 2006. This helped me get a graduate research position with BASF’s sustainability research team where I worked with fellow engineering, architecture and business graduate students researching, analyzing and presenting sustainability business opportunities as it pertains to the built environment. My internship with Weston Solutions, an environmental firm played instrumental in completing my thesis, which was on Greywater use in LEED projects. As part of the research, I visited several LEED projects across America, including 3 platinum projects in California. I attribute my career in sustainability to my first job, followed by my graduate degree, earning a LEED credential and my thesis, which allowed me to visit several LEED projects.

Can you describe some of your sustainability projects and roles?

During my career at Weston Solutions (2006-2011), I participated in multiple sustainability and LEED projects. From facilitating design charrettes, conducting ASHRAE walkthroughs, preparing LEED roadmaps for existing buildings, energy modeling, performing water and waste calculations, I have played multiple roles on LEED projects including LEED administrator on many LEED projects. I also found it rewarding to lead the sustainability education within the company where we had 70+ LEED professionals. During this time, I travelled extensively across America, United Arab Emirates, India and Taiwan educating clients and working on potential sustainability and LEED projects. During this time, I met my future business partner Joe Koizen that paved way to the birth of GBRI in 2010. I still remember our first course “The elements of a green home” that we published on a CD. Joe left GBRI in 2012.

What are some of the roles you have enjoyed?

I enjoyed my role as a LEED program manager, where you simultaneously work on multiple projects. As a LEED project administrator, you are the LEED expert and leader working with all stakeholders and guiding the team towards achieving the owner’s sustainability goals. I loved the planning aspect of it too where I would prepare the LEED project schedule, integrate it with the main construction schedule. Another role I enjoyed was that of an energy modeler where you use software programs to understand and analyze energy usage of your project, model energy efficiency strategies and simulate the energy use, compare it with the baseline building and produce reports that show the energy savings. This is crucial, especially when you want to show the payback period for a technology or energy-efficient product when cheaper alternatives are available. I also enjoyed creating a team of energy modelers for multiple projects and integrate our models with the Building Information and Modeling (BIM) team.

Advice for students and professionals / Which professionals benefit most from sustainability credentials?

In my humble opinion, sustainability-related jobs start with passion, awareness, and education. Now it’s okay if you have not found your passion yet. Follow your curiosity, educate yourself to satiate your curiosity, and passion will follow. Learning-Hub at GBRI is one place I will start with basic courses and advancing through intermediate courses. I also feel case studies and green building tours are wonderful educational experiences. I find them inspiring! Earning a LEED or WELL credential will naturally follow once you have a strong understanding of sustainability, green buildings, & wellness followed by some case studies where you are able to see the benefits and impacts these projects make on our environment, wellness of people, society at large and the economy.

How have you structured your sustainable education packages to be effective for customers?

If you have a background in any field pertaining to buildings, planning, designing, renewable energy technologies (such as a bachelor’s degree in Building Science, Architecture, Landscape Design, Urban Planning, Interior Design, Civil, Mechanical or Electrical Engineering, etc. – anything related to buildings) – complementing your technical knowledge with knowledge in sustainable design, green building design, construction and operations, and green technologies can help you integrate sustainable design practices into your current profession. GBRI has several courses that complement your technical knowledge. This, in itself, will give you a career boost.

I would recommend technical training such as Energy Modeling courses if you are interested in energy use, simulation and analysis. Training courses on sustainability and LEED project management, sustainability and LEED construction management could help future LEED project managers and contractor become savvy on LEED. At GBRI, we have courses and training modules for all of these.  Learning Hub@GBRI redefines sustainability with 100s of course videos, articles, and training materials from topics ranging from green buildings and LEED, WELL, Energy Modeling, BIM, Climate Change, Biophilic Design, and Corporate Social Responsibility.

Which Sustainability Credential is Right for Students and professionals? – LEED Green Associate, LEED AP or a WELL AP Credential?

Becoming an authorized person who has knowledge about green building is a big advantage for gaining excellence in the industry. For this, there are many different credentials out there, such as the LEED Green Associate, LEED AP with specialty, WELL AP, etc.

LEED Green Associate (GA) is the first step in establishing yourself as a serious green building professional whether you’re a student, recent graduate or a professional.

LEED AP Building Design + Construction (BD+C) suits professionals with expertise in the design and construction phases of green buildings, serving the commercial, residential, education and healthcare sectors.

LEED AP Operations + Maintenance (O+M) suits professionals implementing sustainable practices, improving performance, heightening efficiency and reducing environmental impact in existing buildings through enhanced operations and maintenance.

LEED AP Interior Design + Construction (ID+C) serves participants in the design, construction and improvement of commercial interiors and tenant spaces that offer a healthy, sustainable and productive work environment.

LEED AP Neighborhood Development (N.D.) applies to individuals participating in the planning, design and development of walkable, neighborhoods and communities.

A WELL AP credential distinguishes building professionals who have in-depth knowledge of the WELL Building Standard, building codes and standards in the sustainability industry.

What are some of the things GBRI does to give back to communities?

I am a firm believer in giving back to the society where we came from and where we live. I was fortunate to attend boarding school (Navodaya Vidyalaya) in India sponsored by the Central Govt. of India with zero fees. Through my non-profit organization i-believe, GBRI and I assist more than 100 kids in India and Malawi.

Volunteering has always helped and inspired me toward professional development. Be it helping with a project at my Rotary club, volunteering with MTA to distribute masks, or meals for “meals on wheels”, a Habitat for Humanity project, helping with community kitchen, or cleaning a school through a program like N.Y. Cares, it is a humbling and rewarding experience. This is something I strongly recommend to students and young professionals. This helps cultivate a passion for the environment and our society. Networking is equally important. Public speaking is another area I would recommend especially for international professionals when English is not their first language. I have enhanced my public speaking skills through active participation at Bryant Park Toast Masters (BPTM) club in N.Y. City.

I strongly believe every single person working in a sustainability-related area is making a strong impact in this world. Sustainability professionals are agents of change and are committed to balancing the wellness of people, planet and profit.

What’s the best career advice you have ever received?

Continuing education by learning new skills, volunteering, networking, earning new relevant credentials, and mindfulness are the top advices I would say has always helped me. Learning never stops, and one must find a way to stay on top of what’s important to them. I continue to educate myself through books, podcasts & documentaries related to environmental and social causes. Reading and listening to podcasts helps us re-ignite our passion. I enjoy volunteering. It makes me happy to make others happy around me. I practice meditation to be more mindful and present. I am active in organizations such as Toastmasters and Rotary to enhance my communication and leadership skills.

When was the last time you thought “man, I love my job”? What’s an experience and/or project that you feel especially excited to be a part of?

Today is the last time I thought to myself about my job and what I continue to do with all my 3 hats. I continuously feel excited about all the projects I am working on. Be it a course on COVID-19 and HVAC, dissecting numbers for a KPI report, volunteering for the MTA mask force distributing masks on subways, or helping the school project in Malawi or assisting with student scholarships in India – I constantly derive inspiration from everything I am able to do.  I am extremely grateful to where I am now.

What occupations do you think will be critical for the future of green building, LEED and WELL?

Any occupation that continues to touch all aspects of sustainability, green buildings, and wellness will be critical for the environment, society, and economy. That said I believe technical occupations like energy analysis, data gathering, analysis and presentation are key to the growth of green buildings. Transparency with building data (energy, water, waste, occupant well-being), dashboards that meaningfully display KPIs of building performance will go a long way in inspiring the people who are already champions and influence the ones on the side-line to pursue LEED and WELL accreditation.

Who are the professional or trade-oriented organizations you partner with?

As part of partner work, we engage with multiple organizations and individuals to create our content. For example, GBRI is a UN SDG Partner where we created multiple courses to educate the public on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and how they can participate. We engage Architecture and Engineering experts to create our content. Through our educational and non-profit projects, we continue to strive to make a difference in the communities we live in. I also enjoy teaching as a Guest Faculty at Cooper Union Engineering School in N.Y. City. I also enjoy public speaking. I spoke at the Global Project Controls Expo this past week on 2 topics- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Change Management through life cycle analysis.

How is GBRI responding to COVID-19? Do you have any special offers or discounts available?

COVID-19 has hit every aspect of society around the world really hard. No one body has been unaffected by it, whether it be physically, financially, socially, or emotionally. People around the world need support, even more, this year as the economic devastation from the pandemic continues to claim lives and jobs intensifying the economic divide. GBRI is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and has just announced several scholarships for young professionals and students preparing for LEED Green Associate, LEED AP, or WELL AP exams or seeking continuing education to maintain their credential.

Don’t let the pandemic keep you away from where you want to be. We are one human tribe, and we shall overcome this together.

To expedite the process, there is no application process like they would normally have. Instead, GBRI encourages interested applicants to use the honor system. On the scholarship page (provided below), GBRI has listed scholarship codes that applicants could use when registering for their C.E. or Exam Prep courses. Depending on the code applicants enter, the shopping cart will automatically reduce the out-of-pocket cost by 30%-100%. To be more specific, users can get up to 50% for C.E. courses and up to 100% for all exam prep courses. GBRI’s exam prep packages are all-inclusive.

At its 10-year anniversary, GBRI is all about giving back. We’re committed to building strong and vibrant communities where we live and work. We want our communities — and the people and small businesses that bring them to life — to prosper, and we want to help them reach their goals.

I also presented a FREE webinar on HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) and COVID-19. The webinar that aired live last week had close to 2000 registrants. The webinar replay is available on our website. It talks about the role of HVAC for an ambient indoor environment and discusses HVAC strategies for businesses and organizations. As many states get ready to re-open businesses and schools, it is imperative that building managers, school superintendents and facility managers are equipped with up-to-date HVAC strategies while operating their newly opened facilities.

Find out how you can protect indoor space from COVID-19: https://www.gbrionline.org/product/the-hvac-factor-protecting-indoor-spaces-from-covid-19/

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