Amy Vetal, 34, is looking to the future to help the buildings housing America's national treasures better respond to the effects of climate change. Vetal is a consultant with Jacobs in Washington, DC, leading the development of the Smithsonian Institution’s climate change adaptation plan, which calls for developing strategies to respond to large-scale weather events and other disasters to protect the buildings, and their contents.
We talked with Vetal — who has a master’s degree in architecture from Virginia Tech and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, urban design and development from the University of California, Los Angeles — about how she found her focus on sustainability and why more organizations need to consider the potential effects of climate change on their investments.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you describe the first five years of your career as an architectural designer with Jacobs?
VETAL: Within those five years, I had a pretty diverse range of experiences from doing construction documents to planning. I was on a construction site for about two years, too. I preferred the planning work because I felt like a lot of the big decisions were being made in that very early stage, and so I thought that that was an area I could make the greatest impact. I went back to school for planning and I also took real estate development classes, which augmented my previous experience in understanding the business side of the industry.
What is your role today?
VETAL: I work as a consultant on a wide range of project types. Depending on the project, I interface with a range of industry professionals, from facilities management and operations to contractors, architects, engineers, clients, local governments, community stakeholders. In my current work on climate change and sustainability issues, I also work with scientists.
One of your consulting projects today is the Smithsonian’s climate action plan.
VETAL: I'm working directly with the Smithsonian on climate change adaptation. It's in direct response to the executive order requiring federal agencies to submit a climate change adaptation plan.
What does that work entail?
VETAL: My work involves identifying the environmental hazards or threats to facilities and operations and understanding not only what those risks are today but how those risks will evolve over the next century and then prioritizing potential mitigation options.
There's a misconception that climate change is not going to impact us greatly for many years, and that is absolutely false. If you start looking at the data and looking at your facilities, your infrastructure and your operations, depending on the location, it could have a major impact on your business within a relatively short time — 20 years or less. If we're not considering that or we're not informing our clients so that they can make the smartest decision for their business, then we're not doing our job. It's something very new to the industry that hasn't been an integral consideration in the past because our codes are based on historical data.
Climate change and resiliency is going to take the same trajectory as what sustainability has over the past 20 years in that eventually this is going to be standard operating procedure in every project.
What kind of pushback on that, if any, do you get from clients?
VETAL: Cost is always an issue. We're going through a process [right now] with value engineering in which systems that were designed to be much more robust are scaled back because of cost. In a lot of cases, that might be a very good decision, but climate change must be considered within those decisions. We don't necessarily need to build to what conditions will be 60 years out, but we need to make sure that our design can adapt to meet those changing conditions in the future.
What’s an example of that in application?
VETAL: If you're purchasing a piece of property and you're able to meet the runoff allowances set by the local jurisdictions for today, [it's important to consider that] the amount of rainfall in certain areas of the country is going to dramatically increase, so you should think about meeting those runoff requirements in the future. You might make sure you have enough land to include a cistern that would help adapt to that future change.
How did you get involved with sustainability?
VETAL: When I entered the field, it was a hot topic and it tended to be given to some of the younger people. So I went ahead and got the LEED AP professional credential, and from there I was involved in more LEED projects because I had that. It was an opportunity at the time for younger people to learn something and be at the same level as much more experienced people. Because it was a new topic, we were all kind of learning it together.
To what extent has mentoring been available to you as a young professional?
VETAL: I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors throughout my career, and they continue to be my mentors. They’ve acted as tremendous advocates for me and one of the biggest reasons I’ve been involved in such a wide range of projects is because they've helped me increase my exposure. Right now, I'm in the American Institute of Architect's Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program, and it was one of my mentors that brought that program to my attention.
What can the industry be doing better or differently in helping young professionals find where they can bring value?
VETAL: There could be more opportunities to push younger people into more challenging positions earlier. They might not have as much experience as somebody else, but they'll learn much more quickly. Also, providing mentorship in case questions or issues arise.
Where do you see yourself, career-wise, in 10 years?
VETAL: I’ve heard a million times that you should have a clear path if you're going to achieve your goals, but I'm just not one of those people. I enjoy the work I’m doing around resilience and climate adaptation. Where that takes me, I’m not sure, but I hope to continue to be in a position where I’m continually learning, engaging with clients and working on exciting new topics. I would’ve never guessed that I’d be doing what I was today, and I’d be really sad if I wasn’t doing it. So, in 10 years, hopefully, I feel the same way about what it is I’m doing.