Building environmental sustainability from the inside out

Photo of Marina Battle Rullo (Master of Environmental Studies ’23)

“Many people view sustainability as an outdoor job, such as conservation occupations. And those jobs are so important, but there's a lot to be said about having sustainability professionals within the architecture world,” says Marina Battle Rullo (Master of Environmental Studies ’23), a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional. “Americans, on average, spend 90% of their time indoors, so how our built environment is designed is very important—as well as who gets a say in how it is designed.” Marina’s early career focused on outdoor education and orienteering; after completing Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies (MES) degree, she is currently a sustainability specialist for an architecture and planning firm. “The more classes I took, I realized that sustainability themes reach into every single profession,” she reflects. “Penn opened my eyes to how many options there were.”

At Penn, Marina pursued an individualized concentration that she calls Environmental Analysis; she was initially interested in soil and air testing, although her academic path led her to a wider range of data collection and assessment applications. “I also have a great deal of experience with sustainability reports: how do we choose key metrics to track, and what are the actual steps we need to take to move toward successfully implementing those goals,” she says. As an MES student, Marina had the option to take elective courses from schools across Penn, and one of her urban planning courses at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design planted the seed for her final degree requirement. When an assignment required her to attend a local planning meeting, Marina opted to attend a meeting in her hometown, West Chester; her connection to the community led to an internship assisting the Chester County Planning Commission with their Climate Action Plan, which also served as her capstone project. “The Climate Action Plan had key sustainability metrics that they wanted to track in the county. I went through each of their key metrics and researched if there was a reliable source of data to find this information, or if we needed to reword the metric based on the data we could find,” Marina explains. “It was really interesting to sit in on those meetings and see how local government operates.”

As she completed her coursework, Marina was able to pursue a number of different professional development resources that would help position her for a future role in sustainability consulting. “The administrative coordinator for our program would email us and say, ‘Hey, the World Resources Institute has a course on how to track Scope 3 emissions—do you want to take it?’ That was important for building up my resume and continuing my education outside of the classroom,” she recalls. Through Penn’s access to LinkedIn Learning, she completed online courses related to sustainability, tracking greenhouse gas emissions, life cycle assessment, and more. “Take the time to go to all of the free lectures and panels from knowledgeable professionals, even if you are busy with school,” she advises. “There are so many free or cheap resources on campus—take advantage of them! It truly is worth it.” Marina also spent several semesters working as a teaching assistant for Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses, which combine traditional classroom lectures with opportunities to connect with Philadelphia communities. For example, the course Marina assisted placed Penn students in local public schools to teach environmental science at an elementary or middle school level; some of their outreach includes helping students to monitor and collect data about environmental conditions, like air pollution and lead contamination, that directly impact their lives. “That was incredible. I have always loved the teaching aspect of sustainability,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to see our students go out into the community and give back.”

Giving back to the community remains an important theme in her current position with the architecture and planning firm, The Sheward Partnership. “I’m really passionate about community relationships and environmental justice. The firm was interested in having someone who considers the whole community surrounding a building,” she says of her role. “Because a building doesn’t exist in a bubble, right? It’s important to have people on your team who are thinking about how a building project will impact the surrounding neighborhoods.” Whether she consults at the beginning of a project’s design or steps in later in the process, Marina looks at metrics such as renewable energy and water usage, and whether the building includes amenities such as bike storage or a green roof. She also considers social impacts such as affordable housing and how the neighborhood might feel about the new building if, for example, a large structure goes up in what used to be an empty lot. “Every day is different,” she concludes. “What I enjoy about my position is how often we communicate with different sectors. There are so many people you have to consider when you are trying to build something, and it’s really special to have a voice in that process, to think about the emissions and how they will impact people around the site, and to ask how can we give back to the community more than we may be viewed as ‘taking away.’”