CBE’s research activities provide a unique training ground for UC Berkeley students to learn advanced skills in building science, often in collaboration with CBE’s consortium of industry leaders. Our graduates have gone on to highly successful careers, including many in leadership positions, in the building sector and beyond. In this Centerline post, we catch up with three alumni to learn about their current work roles, what inspires them, and where they are headed.

Alumni Interviewees

Kit Elsworth
Building Performance Specialist, Research Group, KieranTimberlake LinkedIn

Soazig Kaam
Sr. Data Analyst, Energy Global Operations and Asset Management, Tesla LinkedIn

Sara Tepfer
Sustainable Materials Consultant, Arup, San Francisco LinkedIn

What career path led you to where you are now?

Kit Elsworth: I first caught the scent of sustainable building design as an undergraduate. Afterwards, I was lucky to get a job at Atelier Ten as an environmental building consult. It was a really good experience right out of college, doing daylighting, energy modeling and benchmarking, but I lacked knowledge of building systems and building science. That led me to apply to the building science program at UC Berkeley. Upon graduating I applied for the job at KieranTimberlake, and that’s where I am now.

Soazig Kaam: When I graduated, I wanted to focus on the intersection of data and sustainability. At my first job at BuildingIQ, I was a data analyst working on very advanced products that would actually take over some control aspects of the building, and I was creating mathematical models to assess our products. Later, Lindsey Baker at WeWork recruited me for the corporate sustainability team, that was a continuation of what I was doing. I wanted to go into a company where the main product was focusing on clean energy and sustainability. And that’s why I am now working in operations, because I realized that I like to get my hands dirty. At Tesla I’m in a team called energy analytics and transformation, we help all the teams to improve their processes and make sure that they have the best tools in place, to work better, eliminate busy work, and overall to be a better company.

Sara Tepfer: I was an undergrad at the University of Oregon in chemistry, and I went to a lecture on green chemistry and carpet products. I had my mind blown, as I’d never really thought about carpet before. I got really inspired to think more about the connection between chemistry and the architects, designers and people in the construction industry. I realized a whole language could be developed to translate and educate the industry around the impacts of materials. One thing led to another, there were various speed bumps and hurdles along the way, but now I am doing exactly that for a range of clients within Arup. While I was at CBE I gave a brief presentation on my research, looking at building industry red lists, and Andrew Rhodes came up to me afterwards and said, ‘you should talk to Frances Yang.’ And she’s now my boss now.

What are you excited about in your current role?

Soazig Kaam: In all the roles that I’ve been in, one of the biggest challenges has been data management internally, especially for companies who’ve been growing very, very fast. You try to fix things as you go, but you don’t really think long term because it’s really about fixing things for the short term. That’s what I’m doing now, I’m working so we can scale up. How can we make a process faster, with less busywork for people? So they don’t have to click on that screen and that screen, and open that application and that application; things can be better organized so they can just go to one place and find the information. I like bringing my technical knowledge from the data space, but also some of my problem-solving skills.

Sara Tepfer: The first thing that comes to mind is how I get to learn something every day. The materials we use are always changing, the processes are always changing, the projects are always changing and the people are always changing. I also really enjoy the translation role that I get to play. Taking the information that I’m able to learn about materials and framing it in a way that is hopefully digestible and understandable by architects and other members of the project team, this is super challenging and exciting for me as well.

Kit Elsworth: Working side-by-side with brilliant architects and top-notch consultants excites me. Also working on projects with high ambitions and finding ways to demonstrate value through different design iterations — value being environmental, economic, and equity. Also, what I love about my job is the ability to do both project-based research, and proactive research on the side, too.

What are some of the challenging problems you are working to solve?

Sara Tepfer: One common challenge on the healthy materials side is demonstrating the value proposition to everyone on the project team. You can convince the architect or the client that it’s an issue, but then you need to convince the subcontractor that they should care too, otherwise the healthier materials may not actually be used in the project. That’s a project delivery challenge, but what are the societal or environmental challenges that we’re trying to address? One is the notion that materials going into buildings are inherently safe because they’re on the market. That’s not true throughout the supply chain and the lifecycle of the materials. On the carbon side, about five to eight percent of carbon emissions are related to concrete and cement production. That’s a challenge that we’re constantly trying to address, there are lots of ways that we can attack that problem, but it’s a big one.

Kit Elsworth:  A challenge is finding ways to translate design innovations or design ideas into meaningful metrics or finding ways to normalize those metrics for the client to understand and make decisions. Carbon is the ultimate all-encompassing metric for buildings, and the effects on people are becoming more important in terms of equity, access, and health. Here in Philly, and I’m sure in other cities, they have mapped out by zip code different neighborhoods’ urban-heat-island intensities. We can use these maps to see which neighborhoods are inequitably affected by climate change, or by urban development. And that’s now a basis of providing more green spaces.

Soazig Kaam: Every time I have gone to a new company, the biggest challenge for me was data management, and trying to find innovative ways to leverage the tools that we have, in the best and the most accurate way possible. In addition to those kinds of high-level issues that any company faces, I am also a new person here, so I have to get more familiar with the systems I’m using and understand the big picture of the business. Here at Tesla, I want to explore all of the ways that I can support the company, and the one that I’m focusing on now is trying to help our operations to be better and more excellent.

Who do you feel that your work serves?

Kit Elsworth:  Probably number one is our clients because they’re getting a product, then our own office, as we hope to learn from each of our projects and advance our own design thinking and design ideology. And then the industry at large, because we do our best to share our lessons learned to advance everyone towards the same goal of beautiful, healthy, and environmentally friendly buildings. Thinking beyond that, the community and others benefit from our low environmental-impact buildings.

Soazig Kaam: My primary stakeholders are those teams who I’m helping. But eventually this is going to trickle down to the customers, right? Because if I’m able to lighten the workload of people who are actually serving customers, eventually they’re going to be able to focus on how do we improve products. So I see that as kind of a snowball effect, but my primary customers are internally in the company.

Sara Tepfer: There are kind of three main buckets. Right now we’re working with a nonprofit, the Healthy Building Network, who are big providers of material health information and one of the go-to sources of research for industry practitioners. By working with them we are really serving the industry as a whole. In the second bucket are folks who have the resources to tackle these bigger, more complicated questions on projects. I see this work serving directly the folks who work for these tech companies or who travel through the airports that we’re working on. Then a third bucket is indirect: if you can prove something works on one project and share those lessons learned, then there’s a higher likelihood that it’ll be possible for another project, and hopefully it shifts the industry in the long term.

How has the CBE community helped you, either in the past or currently?

Sara Tepfer: From the beginning of my involvement with the CBE, it has opened up a lot of doors for me. I had the opportunity to do some work as a CBE researcher and present it at the one of the industry meetings, and I was able to meet with a lot of different industry stakeholders. So making those connections early on has really made the difference for me. I’m still in touch with Gail and Stefano, and CBE continues to help Arup through the research that is provided, as well as the opportunities for collaboration on grants and other things.

Soazig Kaam: I would say the CBE community has been wonderful. I remember during that last conference that I did as a student in 2016, I had great exposure to industry partners, being able to talk about my research, and being able to also work with industry partners during my time there. I also like the hybrid approach at CBE with the research, and having the applied aspect of it. And also, I made a lot of friends who make a good support system.

Kit Elsworth: When I was there I felt fortunate to have many research opportunities available to me, like working in the climate chamber and collecting data in the field. When I talk to people in similar positions as mine, they didn’t necessarily have the same experience in grad school. I didn’t just have my cohort of students, I had 10 to 15 post-docs and researchers. Now here at KieranTimberlake we have the benefit of attending the CBE conferences where we see leading research, which we bring to design and project presentations to justify research and designs. I also like being able to email CBE researchers and continue a conversation that may have been sparked in a conference and get additional resources and insights.

You are in the early part of your career. What are some of your aspirations for the future?

Soazig Kaam: My long-term goal is eventually to work on improving energy access in Sub-Saharan Africa. Working for a company like Tesla, with a lot of development in South Africa, for example, would be a good way to get more familiar with that world. Maybe I could move internally to get closer to the development side and learn more about those types of projects, to eventually apply this to my long-term goals.

Kit Elsworth: One of my missions is to educate and get more people comfortable using simulation software. We have so many projects in the office, it would be good to have more people who can implement environmental drivers at a greater pace. I also teach a building simulation course at UPenn, where I coach architecture students on how to bring environmental analysis into their design thinking. Personally, I would love to work on a project like a Passive House or a zero carbon-certified project where performance is a key driver of the design. One day, I would like to design and build my own net-zero house.

Sara Tepfer: I would like to continue the work that I’m doing, but to broaden its reach, whether that’s through the types of projects that I’m able to work on, or through the conferences, collaborations or connections that can help with that. I hope that it becomes not as rare as it sometimes feels like it is, that it becomes more of the norm. I also hope to complete my studies and use that as an opportunity to maintain connections with the academic community, and to support the learning of other people around me. I think in the process of getting a doctorate, you learn a lot about how to teach others to learn and support them in doing that.

What about passions beyond work are you involved in?

Sara Tepfer: We have an eight-month-old puppy, so I’m passionate about teaching him how to come on command, which is hard. I’m also passionate about opportunities to give back, and I’ve been volunteering at Cat Town, they take cats who are deemed unadoptable, and then nurse them back to health and then they get adopted. Sometimes they have mental or physical problems, but it’s usually more that the shelters are kind of traumatic for them. So we can nurture them back to a place where they can be friendly to humans again

Kit Elsworth: One of my passions is turning my house into a test bed for anything about building science. Since owning my home in Philadelphia, I installed a heat pump system and I nerd out a lot on tracking its performance. I also like spreading the word of healthy, low-impact buildings with people around my community in Philly, I find myself making friends with builders and other people who are involved in buildings and design. Another passion is DIY projects. I used to brew a lot of beer before my daughter Noah was born, so now my new passion is my family, that supplanted my brewing beer hobbies!

Soazig Kaam: I’m still doing design, fashion design, and I’m actually trying to move it to be more sustainable. So I have to think about how I’m going to be able to do that, maybe it will be in the sourcing of the material. Also I started to do some hackathons, like one competition on sustainability. I joined it with one other person and we won our category. And also, I just picked up another hobby six months ago. I’m taking care of a lot of plants. I love plants now!

These interviews were conducted via Zoom over July 8-12, 2021, and were edited and condensed for clarity.

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