If you ask Martha VanGeem, principal engineer and manager at CTLGroup, how she feels about her work, she'll tell you, “I love it and breathe it. I'm passionate about it.”

How many of us can reply this way and mean it?

VanGeem is earning our industry's respect as the key spokeswoman on the topic of concrete and cement's contribution to sustainability. Her research at the Skokie, Ill., materials testing laboratory has focused on moisture migration, energy conservation, heat transfer, and thermal properties.

But more importantly, the results of her effort have yielded important conclusions on concrete's beneficial effects on the thermal mass and energy savings for buildings. Additionally, her research has led her to consult on several important LEED projects.

VanGeem has been a proponent of concrete's environmental contribution long before the recent green movement started. She's been working with these issues for more than 25 years—before many even knew or cared about building sustainable structures.

She started at CTLGroup in 1982, working in energy conservation and running a number of tests for the thermal mass of concrete. But not too many people were concerned about energy conservation. “Only California had an energy code, so few other engineers cared about energy savings,” she says. Now everyone, everywhere has a stake.

VanGeem has watched the interest grow to her delight. “Now, people everywhere care, so it's very exciting,” she says. “I don't do what I do for recognition. I do this because I help a lot of people.” She also enjoys working with other women for a change. “The interesting thing about this whole green field is that there are more women than men. It's a little bonus.”

Martha VanGeem enjoys her role as an authority on sustainable building.
CTLGroup Martha VanGeem enjoys her role as an authority on sustainable building.

Green goes mainstream

Her children say she's famous because she gives speeches to the public. For VanGeem, there's also the satisfaction that the issues she has been espousing finally are becoming mainstream. “I don't believe it's a fad, although some people still tell me it is,” she says. “The most important aspect is saving energy, and I've helped a lot of people with that.

“I do this because I feel like I'm making a difference. When I have people's attention, they are glued to me,” she says. Whether it's the Sierra Club, the Chicago Public Library, or ACI, Van-Geem is an accomplished speaker. She can detect the audience's level of expertise, so it will sink in and be useful to them.

Recently, VanGeem traveled to China to speak at The First International Conference on Building Energy and Environment. The trip was an eye-opening experience of how a Communist country controls and plans their buildings. Energy conservation is a huge, growing issue for the nation of 1.3 billion people.

“China has a growing middle class, so you'll see buildings with air conditioner after air conditioner in the windows,” VanGeem says. “It's a big drain on energy, but the weather is very hot so they deserve the comfort. They also build buildings that are the size of a huge city block. There are massive structures in Beijing. China approaches problems on a scale we don't see. They landscape to reduce the heat island effect. They've decided that heat pumps work, so they use them in many of their buildings.”

But they are not interested in LEED or green building. “They just want to tackle all of their building and energy problems,” she says.