In Spotlights

Breana Wheeler, Director of Operations for Building Research Establishment, (BRE)/BREEAM USA

Breana Wheeler became Building Research Establishment’s (BRE) Director of Operations in the US in June of 2016. BRE is a 100-year-old building science research organization focused on making buildings better for people and for the environment. BRE developed BREEAM, the world’s first and leading science-based suite of validation and certification systems for a sustainable built environment.

Breana oversees the deployment of the BREEAM family of standards in the US. Additionally, she supports technical work on Resilience and Social Impact in BREEAM. Prior to joining BRE, Breana worked for ten years as an internal advisor on environmental and sustainability risk management for large, multinational corporations.

What is the educational and career path that led to your current career?

I completed my undergrad at San Francisco State University, graduating with a double BA in Geography and Political Science. At that time, Environmental Studies wasn’t a separate degree but Geography as a discipline was and still is an excellent pathway to study environmental issues. The Political Science degree was a bit of an accident. I completed two years of a study abroad program and ended up having enough credits in the field to pursue the second degree. 

I then moved to London and needed to find my feet (e.g. get a job to pay bills). Admin work has always been my back-up plan (everyone should have one!), but I considered carefully the type of company I wanted to work for. I chose Skanska because I was impressed with how transparently they spoke about managing their environmental impacts.

While I enjoyed the job, it was not the career I wanted. So while working full time, I earned my MA in Environment, Politics and Globalization from King’s College London. I scheduled a sabbatical from work to do my dissertation research and just before going off, the Executive Vice President whom I had been working for directly at that point asked me about my aspirations. I explained where I saw our company could improve and where I saw my skills fitting in. By the end of that 20 minute conversation, he offered to create that role for me upon my return.

Following my return to work, I then earned a Certificate in Environmental Management through IEMA (Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment) which gave me additional skills and knowledge around ISO 14001, the standard for environmental management in organizations, as well as membership to a professional body for anyone involved in sustainability. Following my time with Skanska, I worked for several multinational organizations that delivered design and engineering services, mostly focused on corporate environmental management but also expanding to include health, safety and quality management.

After 10 years in London, my family and I moved back to San Francisco. The environmental management profession was heavily concentrated in regulated industries, which was not where I wanted to be. Once again, I took a temporary job as an admin and ended up working in the property management office of a prominent building in San Francisco. I was introduced into sustainability in real estate and transitioned to a consulting firm specializing in LEED consultancy for existing buildings. After a year, I became the Director of Operations for BRE when BREEAM was launched in the US. 

How did you become interested in environmental work?

I knew from a young age that the environment was in trouble. Initially, it was the slaughter of African elephants–I just couldn’t understand why anyone would kill such an amazing creature. I started writing letters to my representatives and raised money for WWF. I felt a deep connection to nature and particularly the Sierra Nevada forests (I lived at Lake Tahoe and went to Yosemite every summer growing up).

What environmental issues are of most concern to you?

Climate change has been at the top for a long time but for the last five or so years, the biodiversity crisis has become equal. I’ve never doubted the human ability to adapt our economy and society to climate change, but all that is underpinned by biodiversity. If the natural systems we rely on cannot adapt well or at all, the whole prospect becomes a lot shakier. The pandemic has brought what I see as a silver lining–it showed us that when we need to, we can adapt and change. The world is what we make of it–our societies and economies can make changes but we definitely don’t want to face a wrenching change that results in significant financial and social damage. That means acting urgently to ensure we don’t get to 2030 without having made serious inroads to decarbonizing the economy.

Discuss any mentors that have helped or inspired you to reach your aspirations.

I had two women mentors who were incredibly influential in my life. By the time I worked with them, both had reached senior positions. They took absolute opposite approaches to operating in a male-dominated field and business. One felt it was important to observe the culture they worked in and work within the structure to dismantle it. She didn’t stand for bad behavior–in fact most people were somewhat terrified of her–but she competed fiercely and proved herself equal. The other championed their womanhood in a very open and unapologetic way. She didn’t want to adopt male work culture; she wanted it to make room for women and change to recognize the value of what women bring to the table.  

Both had gained the respect of their male colleagues and were successful in their careers. This showed me that different pathways can find success; I needed to find a path that reflected me. I was so grateful for the opportunity to learn from them that I’ve made mentorship, particularly with emerging professionals and with women, a key part of my career. I was privileged to have two terrific mentors simultaneously and even more so that both were women. I encourage all to take the time–even when it feels like everything is crazy busy–to offer that opportunity to emerging professionals. In my experience, it’s just as enriching as a mentor as it was as a mentee.

Connect with Breana on LinkedIn.