Developing a Sustainability Career from a Mechanical Engineering Foundation

A master’s degree from Northeastern and a co-op at BR + A helped Tammy Ngo, MS’23, sustainable building systems, change her career trajectory from mechanical engineering to sustainable building design.

Tammy Ngo, MS’23, sustainable building systems, was on the fence between three different schools as she decided where to pursue her master’s degree. She ultimately chose Northeastern because it offered her a chance to explore the professional world while simultaneously learning about sustainable building design in an academic environment. She was especially interested in the experiences of CAMD/CEE Associate Professor David Fannon, who had previously worked in the industry before teaching at Northeastern. The Northeastern University Sustainable Building Organization, or NUSBO, also caught her attention early on as a golden opportunity.

“[NUSBO] would invite professionals in the working environment to come speak with us every single week, and that’s where we can learn about real projects in the professional environment,” Ngo says.

Christopher Schaffner, a part-time lecturer at Northeastern and the CEO and founder of The Green Engineer, Inc., also helped Ngo experience professional work within the curriculum. As her professor for Sustainable Engineering Systems for Buildings, he gave Ngo insight into the work of energy modelers and sustainability consultants.

During her time at Northeastern, Ngo completed a co-op at BR + A as an energy engineer. She mainly performed building energy simulations to analyze each building’s energy performance. From there, she worked to reduce each building’s energy consumption and carbon emissions to make them more efficient and sustainable. She also helped ensure LEED and Stretch Code compliance through her building energy models. By using what she learned from her coursework, she was fully prepared for any task BR + A gave her.

“Energy modeling, LEED compliance, I was exposed to a little bit of everything through my curriculum already,” Ngo says.

Ngo with her fellow NUSBO members at the BuildingEnergy Boston conference.

Ngo started her engineering career as a mechanical engineer designing HVAC systems, but as her interest in sustainability expanded, she settled on sustainable building systems. Schaffner also started out as a mechanical engineer, and seeing his career journey helped Ngo realize that she could make this change. After her experience at BR + A, she feels more secure about her decision to work in sustainable design. Her co-op showed her how she could pursue this work while continuing to grow her HVAC knowledge.

“It’s confirmed that I want to do sustainability because BR + A have their mechanical department and their sustainability department… and the whole time I’ve loved sustainability,” Ngo says.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2018, Ngo spent a few years in the workforce before pursuing a master’s degree. A full-time mechanical engineering position at CRB and internships at P2S Inc. and Advanced Technologies Consultants gave her experience in the industry, but returning to education helped her focus on her interest in sustainability. Her passion for HVAC systems opened doors to exploring sustainable design, which in turn led her to sustainable building systems.

“Back then I chose mechanical, but mechanical is so broad,” Ngo says. “Now I’ve narrowed it down to sustainability, so I’m jumping to the opportunity.”

Ngo says that as an undergraduate, the curriculum limited her to only taking certain classes, but the flexibility in what courses she takes at Northeastern has given her a new perspective. At the same time, these undergraduate courses were still valuable because they helped her build a solid foundation for her sustainability knowledge.

“In a commercial building in the U.S., more than 40 percent of the building’s energy consumption is related to HVAC systems, so having background about mechanical gave me a stronger foundation to pursue sustainable building design,” Ngo says.

Ngo with her NUSBO team at the BE+ Sustainable Building Scavenger Hunt.

Now at BR + A full-time, the range of work she does has expanded upon her co-op experience by working with existing buildings in addition to new construction design.

“The Stretch Code changes every three years, so there’s new things going on right now that I get to be exposed to,” Ngo says. “There is always lots to learn and improve to help buildings comply with the code and target carbon neutral goals.”

Her Northeastern experience has revitalized her career path, and she is now fully on-course for sustainability work. Between NUSBO and lots of networking, Ngo says her learning and working journey has made her more open-minded, passionate and proactive towards new opportunities.

“Before I thought of moving to Boston just to complete my program, but then I dove into the opportunities [with] full force,” Ngo says. “It’s helped me to build extra skills that I need for the industry.”

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering