PORTSMOUTH — She may be the first woman engineer he’d ever hired, but James Petersen saw in Sarah Carter a unique narrative thread that seemed to bind all of his standout acquisitions: the itch to come home.
“We’ve gotten our best employees the same way we got Sarah, which is to say she spent a good part of her 20s working for a large firm in a big city,” said Petersen, owner of Portsmouth-based Petersen Engineering. “By the time Sarah got here, she’d had five years of solid fundamentals under her belt, so I felt like the beneficiary of her missing the culture of home.”
Like many new college graduates, Carter needed some time to enjoy her 20s. After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Vermont in 2003, she moved to the mountains of Colorado. There the Maine native spent the next year working primarily at a ski resort, giving youth lessons and punching lift tickets while enjoying the Rockies.
It wasn’t long before Carter moved back East to Washington, D.C., where she landed at a job as an engineer at a large, high-profile firm. And while the work was rewarding — most of her projects involved large government buildings in and around the Beltway and throughout the country — after five years, Carter and her husband found themselves missing New England.
Around that time, Carter’s sister stumbled across an ad in a Seacoast publication placed by Petersen Engineering seeking a mechanical engineer. Wasting little time, Carter applied for the job. She landed the position after her first interview and soon moved to Portsmouth. But if the home-again comfort of her new company represented a welcome sea change from her comparatively bustling former confines, being the first and only woman engineer at her new firm threw her for a bit of a loop.
“When I worked in Washington, I’d guess 40 percent of the engineers there were women,” Carter recalled. “So when I got to Petersen and noticed at project meetings that I was the only one, it was a little surprising.”
Carter had been down this road before. When she graduated from UVM, roughly eight of the 40 graduates in her department were women. “And that was considered progress at the time,” she laughed.
Not that Petersen Engineering was living in the past. Instead, Petersen, who’d never employed a staff larger than seven, had simply always hired the best candidate for the job. This time, it happened to be Carter.
“Really, it’s a matter of numbers,” he said. “When there are more female professionals in the workforce, there’s inherently a larger talent pool to draw from compared to a few decades ago. But beyond that, she’s one of the most talented engineers that I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”
Beyond trading the angled marble surroundings of the nation’s capital for the Seacoast’s brick and clapboard, where Carter once only dealt with one or two projects at a time, she now found herself immersed in four or five assignments at once.
She’s currently splitting her time between a ground-up community housing project south of Boston, another Boston-area building emphasizing passive-solar principles and a number of mill-repurposing projects throughout the region.
Being able to work on multiple projects wasn’t the only aspect of Petersen Engineering Carter quickly took to. She was impressed by the firm’s steadfast commitment to sustainable design practices, an area she had dabbled in while working in Washington. Petersen Engineering was one of the first companies to join the Green Alliance, the Seacoast “green business union” launched in 2008 that now represents nearly 100 local sustainability-minded businesses.
“I’d occasionally do some energy modeling for various projects, which kind of turned me on to that side of the process,” Carter said. “But it’s easy when you work at a big firm to just be caught up in all that you’re doing and not have the time to focus on that part that really interests you. So, it was great when I came to Petersen and saw that that’s how they approached every project.”
Working at Petersen Engineering opened Carter’s eyes to issues of energy consumption, its relation to design and the ways a person in her position could effectively mitigate them. For the better part of a year, those approaches were on display around her.
In the fall of 2009, Petersen began a complete renovation of his Maplewood offices, a project that included augmenting everything from the walls to the roof to the foundation. And while she wasn’t directly involved with the day-to-day aspects of the project, it was impossible for Carter to not absorb the myriad ways even a two-centuries-old structure could be rendered green.
“The first winter we were here, it was so cold I literally had to wear a hat and mittens on several occasions,” Carter said a chuckle. “By the time last winter rolled around, after seeing the progress that was made day in and day out, it was totally transformed.”
Having always excelled in math and science, Carter, who grew up in Poland, Maine, knew when she was accepted to UVM that engineering would likely be her ideal field. But it wasn’t until she chose mechanical engineering specifically — and subsequently landed her first job in the field — that she learned how much she enjoyed the world of architectural engineering.
“In so many ways I was drawn to how people can influence their environment in a positive way,” she said. “To be able to make these buildings as durable and efficient as possible, even if it’s doing a small part, will still hopefully be a lasting contribution.”
Carter may wonder if her work will leave a suitably positive legacy. Her boss, on the other hand, has little doubt.
“She might not consider herself as having broken through any kind of glass ceiling, but that’s because she’s modest,” Petersen said. “I think she’ll end up being a great role model for the next generation of women, even if she doesn’t realize it yet.”
At a glance
Petersen Engineering: www.petersenengineering.com
Green Alliance: www.greenalliance.biz