Sean Armstrong; Project Manager; Redwood Energy
The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. NWF EcoLeaders staff has interviewed this group of change-makers and rising stars that we call “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”
David Corsar: So, to start out, looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as Fellow help shape your career?
Sean Armstrong: So, NWF supported me in researching and writing a book – a history book – about a leading demonstration center in the United States – the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (CCAT). It’s the oldest of the original demonstration houses that were founded in the late 1970s, under Carter, but survived the Reagan era because it was student fee funded, not tax funded. It was founded in 1978 by a large group of students, and the started a demonstration house for “appropriate technology” on HSU campus.
It is a live-in demonstration house, with three co-directors living there. We lived to “disprove the myth that living lighting on the earth is either difficult or uncomfortable,” and the house was comfortable, but on a social level it was difficult living in this human zoo and managing 20 staff with just a monthly check-in with a volunteer advisory group. It’s a maturing experience. The student funded 3-bedroom house is on campus, solar powered with a composting toilet and plumbed toilet, a gray water marsh, retrofitted with deep insulation, and home to pedal-powered inventions--laptops, washing machines, blenders, grain grinders, a drill press, and enough pedal-powered generators to power a concert stage, built in our basement lab under the leadership of a kindly and eccentric pedal-power inventor named Bart.
NWF funded me to call up and interviewed former CCAT co-directors, most of who had gone to become university professors, engineers, general contractors, community directors, etc. The experience living at CCAT was a peak experience for many of them. A lot of people who had lived in this program had gotten experience directing staff and volunteers, so they were very well set up to next get a job in a more senior leadership position and difficult jobs.
My partner in this was a fellow CCAT Co-Director, Michelle Waller, and together we transcribed about 500 pages of interviews and provided CCAT with 20 years of history, which is huge for an organization with annual change-outs of senior leadership—a historical memory that doesn’t have to be hastily communicated as leadership switches over each year. Michelle graduated before me and wasn’t funded for the work, but it did help develop in her career as a journalist.
Professionally, the NWF grant led to the opportunity to interview a local CCAT Co-Founder, Louis Hoiland. He is a local hero, and he later accepted my request to be my Mentor Teacher when I went into the local teacher credential program. Louis was a star science teacher who spent 20 years restoring a mill site next to the high school with his science students into what is now a salmon bearing stream and wetland with graveled city trails. I learned a great deal from him, and he is not unique in that CCAT has inspired so many people be in effective environmental leaders in all walks of life. Being principled is hard enough, but being principled and effective requires training. That’s what CCAT offered all those former Co-Directors.
While the interviews and technical review are in the archives, I live close to CCAT and continue to mentor each set of co-directors that have come in, and it’s helpful to tell stories about similar choices faced by previous Co-Directors. We set aside time to go over the history and also to explore the nature of conflict among three people who are directing a program as equals, but given their different strengths, interests and time availability there’ll usually be the person who does the least amount of work and one who does the most amount of work, and someone in the middle of them. And everyone will see it (laughs), but not everyone will agree as to who’s who. Getting through that inherent tension gracefully is part of learning how to be a Co-Director.
After teaching middle and substituting for high school, I took a as project manager for a local affordable housing developer lead their the green building efforts. We did the first solar-powered apartment complex that solarized the tenants, not just the Onwer’s load, in the United States. I had thought I was going to be a science teacher, but I couldn’t get hired as a science teacher because California was laying everyone off in 2005. So, instead of being an academic, I ended up being a doer (laughs). And it wasn’t a perfect fit because at the time I thought “I’m more inherently more of a learner than a doer,” but at this construction company I knew far more than those around me about how to fulfill on all the green building commitments they’d made for financing. By hook or crook, it got done. I’m not an engineer; I don’t fill those roles, but for that reason, all those other people, the engineers and such, they haven’t done nearly as much of running that with low-income housing specifically, which is a fantastic place to do deep solarization work with public financing grants support, policy support, etc.
Now, the book exists as an unpublished manuscript in the basement of CCAT. They pull it up and they look at the files; it’s helpful. We never got it published for real, but people read the interviews, and it’s still informative. So, whether or not it changed the world for people who read it, it did change the world for me to write it.
DC: What was the top thing, a skill perhaps, that you learned in your professional development at NWF?
SA: I learned how to write concise technical writing. For example, I read all the composting toilets books; I talked with the authors, and then I tried write my own 4-page version that was digestible. As I mentioned, the book wasn’t published, but I still learned really well how to install composting toilets, and the same with solar rays, wind turbines, through the process of having to both learn and then write – and not at an academic level but at a professional level.
DC: What are you up to these days? Where are you working, and why did you choose to work there?
The experience of the National Wildlife Federation was not the only thing that set me on the path, but it was very different from my other on campus jobs to be paid to just learn about renewable energy, sustainable construction, and the history of it. A lot of people try to reinvent technologies, and I can now say, for example, “no, no, I understand gray water systems, that’s 80s era thinking that you’re having there. This Nexus reuse system over here is a much better; it’s got gray water heat pumps; it’s going to be using a hybrid of heat pumps and gray water treatment.”
DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
SA: Save The World. That is my motto; I’m trying to save the world. When I’m doing a green building specification I’m choosing forest stewardship council certified wood; I understand as a biologist all the implications of what a good forest management system is versus a bad one. And I have the privilege of sitting at the nexus of a global perspective.
In 15 minutes, I have a meeting with the nation’s largest modular home builder, out of Boise, and they’re building three different zero energy apartment complexes that I’m working on over the next year. My job is to try to save the world through the carpet choices, the paint choices, the wood choices, the energy systems, the zero irrigation edible landscaping...
DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
SA: Aldo Leopold, Jane Goodall, Judi Bari – a local Earth First activist, who worked with unions to save the old growth redwood forest. Julia Butterfly Hill – she’s another local Earth First activist; she lived up in a tree for 2.5 years, and she’s on my company logo – an image of her standing on top of it. She’s someone who took really significant personal sacrifices and succeeded in changing the entire discussion and nationalized the preservation of this local growth.
Also, Kirk Girard – he’s one of the two co-founders of CCAT, and he was the Director of Community Development for the whole county. There’s a tremendous amount of positive work he’s done on the larger land use issues and forest management or big pollution issues for the county.
DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
SA: My English teacher in high school – who’s actually been one of my best friends for probably 30 years now. He mentored me in writing, and writing skills are obviously very important to me now.
And then when I went to work for the general contractor, Ben Johnson, the owner of the company was a great business mentor. He was very different from me in a number of ways – he was a Republican, a jock, etc., but he was rigorous about being transparent in his communications, really clear about the importance of returning phone calls, of having a rapid turnaround for anything that comes in front of you – just get it done. That sort of cowboy statement: “Get ‘Er Done!” That’s what it was: don’t make excuses, work hard, and get it done.
He had a whole bunch of business ethics that he coached us on. He made us read books, and we would have a weekly discussion, for example, we discussed the guy who runs Umpqua bank, his book. There was training on attitude and a focus on high quality service – you are giving people a product, and in consulting, the product is your brain.
Ben really focused on: “follow the money” – you have to know how much things cost. You cannot just make recommendations for this piece or that green installation or this green program or anything, unless you know what it costs. And so I had to think in dollars and cents. Now, I’ll be in a team of a dozen professionals – mechanical engineers, general contractors, project manager, a whole team and no one will know what anything costs to do – even the person who’s called the estimator, will not be able to speak to estimating what something costs.
So, here I am - a long-haired, tall, bisexual, blond; I wear skirts sometimes to work dude – you cannot not notice me – I can’t hide myself, and I was working in a very Republican organization, and they kept me on all through the recession because I could focus on the money. I could go out and get them grants, based on money that was available for affordable housing green building – like this niche within a niche within a niche. We made a business out of that during the recession, getting that money specifically. Focusing on how much things cost can make you really valuable to people, that was what Ben Johnson taught me, and that helped me a lot.
DC: Do you seek out opportunities to act as a mentee again or perhaps a mentor yourself?
SA: I have interns; I have 10 right now, and I aggressively work with HSU. I’m right here near the same university I went to, so I know the professors, and I advertise and I can reach students.
DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability either overall or in the built environment sector?