Women in Building Performance: Maureen Mahle
Maureen Mahle is an engineer and specialist in high performance homes. As the vice president and director of Steven Winter Associates’ Sustainable Housing Services, Mahle provides expert sustainable design, specification, and construction consulting for a variety of project types including community developments, private residences, mixed-use, and multifamily buildings.
Macie Melendez: How did you get started in the home performance industry?
Maureen Mahle: My family bought older homes and renovated them for resale, so I spent a lot of time as unskilled labor between the ages of 8 and 18. When I went to college, I thought I wanted to study mechanical engineering so that I could design rollercoasters, but then I found my way to civil engineering with a construction management emphasis because it turned out residential construction was in my blood. I was drawn to the necessity of that field of study and the opportunity to improve the shelters we rely on daily.
MM: How has your career evolved?
Mahle: In addition to my civil engineering/construction major, I minored in environmental studies because that was an interest passed down from conservationist grandparents. I stumbled upon papers by the founders of the modern green building movement and decided that was a perfect solution, but nobody knew what I was talking about it when I said I wanted to get into green construction. After graduate school I was hired by a local environmental consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin that focused on behavior change. They purchased an old building and hired me to oversee a green renovation—at intern wages. With a successful project under my belt, I found my way to Steven Winter Associates at the suggestion of a former professor, and I’ve been here for the last 10 years. Initially I focused on research for new and emerging residential building technologies, but with the growth of the green home certification market, I now work almost exclusively for private clients seeking help with specific residential projects.
MM: When you started out, what was your biggest obstacle? How did you overcome it?
Mahle: While many of the principles have been around in various forms for a long time, green building was barely recognized in 2005. Around 2008, I noticed a definite shift in public awareness, and telling strangers on an airplane that I was a green building consultant suddenly made sense. Mainstream industry professionals started to talk about incorporating resource efficiency, human health, and environmental stewardship into their practices. In this instance, patience and a lot of preaching were the keys to overcoming a lack of awareness about green building.
MM: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
Mahle: There is absolutely always something new to learn. Being there for the 'aha!' moment when a builder connects the dots about air sealing during a blower door test, or seeing a design team propose a totally new strategy that starts a frantic email chain among the building science geeks at the office—it's all about refusing to accept the status quo, and believing that we can make buildings better.
MM: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for women in this industry?
Mahle: Ours is an industry that is slow to change. As a result, moving the needle forward requires aggressive salesmanship. I think sometimes women (myself included) are challenged by the need to convincingly promote our message and our services. We may be more comfortable doing good work and hoping that will do the talking for us, but effectively selling our principles is key to success in home performance.
MM: What advice would you give to a woman starting out in the home performance industry?
Mahle: Near the end of college in the early 2000s, I interviewed for jobs with construction management firms and mentioned my interest in green building. Their response was that I should follow the conventional project manager route for a few years, and then perhaps there would be room to incorporate this additional interest in sustainability. Then I spoke to a green building believer who gave me the opposite advice: ‘Why learn it wrong?’ That is the advice I would give any woman starting out in the home performance industry: Don't pay your dues learning conventional practices with the hope of someday doing something more innovative. Seek out the most innovative practitioners you can find, and pay your dues learning to do things right the first time.
This is the first blog post in the Women in Building Performance series. Learn more about the series here.