When Josh VandeBerg joined Western Technical College in fall 2012, he brought with him a set of skills that made him uniquely qualified to lead the College’s newest program in the emerging green energy field: Building Systems Technology. A philosophy degree, combined with construction experience, years working with disadvantaged youth in Sandstone, MN; Minneapolis, MN; and La Crosse, WI; and a “yes, please” attitude yielded just the right combination for Western’s program.
A philosophy major might not seem like a natural fit for building and assessing energy efficient structures, but as it so happens, it is. While earning his philosophy degree, VandeBerg spent summers pouring concrete. He went on to get his contractor’s license and worked in construction for 20 years. That construction experience, as well as his work with multiple youth programs led him to Building Opportunities, an education, skills training, and job readiness program funded through YouthBuild USA and Americorps. “We rehabbed and rebuilt distressed properties in the community,” VandeBerg explained.
As part of that work, and through continuing education, VandeBerg earned a Building Analyst Certificate from the Building Performance Institute. This organization develops standards and certifies professionals for energy efficiency retrofit work. “They apply scientific principles to buildings to make structures more energy efficient,” VandeBerg said. “It piqued my interest.” He began to pass on this knowledge to his young construction students, helping them understand energy and moisture in buildings.
When Western developed a program in response this emerging field, it tapped VandeBerg to help develop an occupational program in Building Systems Technology. Applying building science principles, students learn how to conduct home performance tests, energy modeling, and energy audits.
One of the first projects students were involved in was the construction of a passive house. The structure utilizes a design and construction model focused on energy efficiency and gave students a birds-eye view of the process in action. “As a Building Systems Technology program student, we talked about the science of buildings daily in our classes. But finally being able to see the science in action on an actual construction site provided us something more powerful than our class lessons: in-the-field experience,” said John Kroll, a Building Systems Technology student who graduates in April. The completed house is currently being used as an instructional facility for Building Systems Technology, HVAC, Landscape Horticulture, Wood Tech, and Architectural Technology students.
Since starting at the College, VandeBerg became a Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC) through the Passive House Institute-US. The CPHC credential requires extensive training and VandeBerg was certified through the first virtual offering. He completed the online coursework; a one-week, hands-on training; a written exam; and designed a passive house.
As the only technical college instructor with the CPHC certification, VandeBerg brings a skill set no one else has to the classroom and he’s committed to giving students the hands-on skills they need when they enter the workforce.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done the past three years,” he said. “The passive house has the most rigorous standards that you can meet and we did this as a college and my students were part of it. Our work with Habitat for Humanity gets us in the community, working on projects that matter. We are helping build high-performance homes for people who need places to live. We are bringing a new sense of quality to those homes.”
What might be the most meaningful for him and his students is that you can drive throughout the district and see tangible evidence of their work. “All the homes they test or are a part of, for those students, those buildings are a monument to what they learned,” said VandeBerg. “When they drive by, even years from now, they will remember working on those buildings.” He continued, “My students’ names are on the air tightness verification documentation for the passive house. Those documents are in Germany. How many of us can say that we had that kind of exposure and experience to projects like that as college students?”
“These graduates have amazing portfolios,” VandeBerg marveled. “And I have so much fun as an instructor,” he added. “It’s great to see their energy awareness grow. They see the world in a different way when they are finished with this program.”