Change of Scene: Sydney Mainster on Turning Tangents into Passions

Change of Scene: Sydney Mainster on Turning Tangents into Passions

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By Julia Gamolina

Sydney Mainster serves as the Director of Sustainability for The Durst Organization - a 100-year-old family-run Real Estate company based in New York City. She brings over 16 years of professional and academic Architecture, Design and Construction experience to her role. Her current focus is to transform the building product industry and resultant material waste streams. Previously, she served as Adjunct Faculty and Director of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture Materials Resource Center.

 Sydney earned a Master of Architecture degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 2010, and was an Architecture Studio Instructor for the GSD’s Career Discovery program. Between her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley (BA in Architecture; Minor in Structural Engineering) and graduate school, as well as post-GSD, she worked at a variety of construction industry-related jobs in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Boston, New York City, London, and Austin. She has professional experience working in Architecture, Structural Engineering, Construction, Academia, and as a Green Building Consultant to Texas and New York developers. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Sydney talks about the diversity of her experiences, advising young architects to explore their true interests. 

 JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?

SM: I became interested in architecture because of an amazing woodshop teacher I had in middle school. At the time, I wanted to take both woodshop and art, but they conflicted. The woodshop teacher knew and said, “I have a friend who teaches architecture - why don’t I get some assignments for you during the woodshop class so that you can do a little bit of both.” I remember thinking, “Architecture! That’s interesting.”

Do you remember your first formative experience relating to the field?

In my high school there was a program where you could visit and chat with local professionals about their careers. I got matched up with a male architect, and when I showed up at the office, this guy went, “Oh! You’re a girl!” Because of my name, on paper a lot of people think I’m a guy. He said, “I had all this planned, I was going to take you out to lunch, but now it isn’t proper and we can’t do this.” He invited his assistant - a woman - to come and hang out with us for the day, because somehow it wouldn’t be ok for him to take me out to lunch alone. Over lunch, he said to me, “You can go into architecture but I never want you to assume you’re being discriminated against or treated unfairly because you’re a woman.” I was sixteen and I thought what a weird conversation! And didn’t he himself treat me unfairly just now because I’m a woman?

After that, I was annoyed and said to myself, “I’m definitely going to pursue architecture now and be awesome at it because I’m a woman.” It started me on this path, of being frustrated by these kinds of assumptions, and always trying to show that those perceived limitations were incorrect. I wrote my architecture school application essay saying that I wanted to be the first woman’s professional baseball player and had always had this desire to excel at something male-dominated.

What did you take away from your time in architecture school?

I studied both architecture and structural engineering, and developed an interest in sustainability very early. One of my first classes in college – even before I took a class on architecture - was called “Energy and the Environment” and one of the assignments had us compare the environmental and energy impact of using hand towels versus an electric dryer in the bathroom. This was 1997 – pre-LEED and before the wider adoption of the term “sustainability.” This class that made you think about systems and the impact of the decisions you make, and started me on the path of wanting to pursue “ecological” design.

 Sydney at the Urban Green Panel in 2018.

Sydney at the Urban Green Panel in 2018.

What was your first job out of school?

My first real “Architecture” job was working for a small ecological design firm in Berkeley – “sustainable” wasn’t even a term at the time. We worked out of a converted chicken coup located behind the principals’ house. The walls were strawboard and the house was recovered in-soil cement – we focused primarily on strawbale and rammed earth houses that used no mechanical ventilation and that were run primarily with electricity from photovoltaics and solar thermal hot water heating. This was where I really learned how to execute a climatically-responsive design, with passive systems; the practical, professional application of core sustainable design concepts.

What did you do next?

I decided I was really broke and not making enough money [laughs], so I moved home to Los Angeles, with my mom to save on rent, and I worked on a construction site doing “as-builts” for a few months, which was amazing. You learn a lot being on site, being able to see the physical 3D execution of your 2D-drawn details. Note to future and current architects: every line on a drawing means something, or at least, someone will think it does.

Then I decided to move to New York City – I was a little tired of California. I still really wanted to be a sustainable designer, so I found a job as a LEED and environmental consultant to a few clients, primarily the Durst Organization! I worked on skyscrapers, including One Bryant Park. That job required translating my experience with sustainable design concepts from small scale passive systems to massive skyscrapers in New York City. It was a big jump but it became readily apparent the size of the impact you could have at that scale.

Did you go to Durst after that?

Nope [laughs]! I thought to myself, “Ok, this was great, but now I’m going to go and finally be an architect after doing this auxiliary thing.” I went back to graduate school, to Harvard, and was there until 2010. While I was there, I ended up helping teach a sustainable design courses nearly every semester.

One of my internships at Harvard was for Guy Nordenson, the structural engineer. I loved that job – it combined engineering and architecture, and the projects the firm did and does so clearly articulated structural material performance in their formal execution.  One of my projects there was designing a passively ventilated solar chimney roof for an Intermodal Transit Center in Houston. I got to apply physics concepts and do the calculations for the ventilation using stack effect of the chimneys and thinking about how we could passively dehumidify and cool.

What did you do once you got out of grad school?

I was a studio instructor for the GSD Design Discovery Summer Program, and then on a whim I moved to Austin, Texas! I wanted a change of scene again and something totally different. I ended up working for the University of Texas Austin School of Architecture. This was 2010 when the market for architects was terrible, and I couldn’t get an architecture interview for my life.

I became the Director for the Materials Lab, and ended up teaching for a little bit there as well. I loved it because I got to define the pedagogy between the academy and the industry in terms of material relationships, and I had a three-year research project where I, with an incredible student research assistant, created a sustainable material evaluation tool.

 Sydney at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture Material Lab. 

Sydney at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture Material Lab. 

 Sydney installing at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture Material Lab

Sydney installing at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture Material Lab

Did you ever end up pursuing a job as an architect at an office?

Yes, after three years in Austin, I decided to move back to New York City to do just that. I got a design job and worked for six months, and then I decided that I hated it [laughs]. Very quickly I thought to myself, “Nope! We’re done with that experiment.”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate architecture – I love architecture. I love buildings. I’ve taught it, I really love design and I believe in it, but the profession of it and the practice of it and I are not friends [laughs].

How did you finally end up at Durst?

I was chatting with good friend Amanda Kaminsky, the Sustainable Construction Manager for Durst, and I was telling her about my work in Austin and my close look at sustainable materials – we were just catching up – and she asked if I wanted to come work with her!

She was initiating an academic and industry partnership around material innovation, and that sounded like the most beautiful evolution of what I had been doing in Austin. I knew that Durst was really serious about sustainability and I loved the leadership role they were taking with regards to materials and health. That’s where I’ve been for the past four years and I’ve never looked back!

 Sydney with TDO Project Manager Julia Limongello, by Michael Priest Photography

Sydney with TDO Project Manager Julia Limongello, by Michael Priest Photography

Where are you in your career today and what are the challenges that you’re grappling with?

I am now the Director of Sustainability at the Durst Organization - I was actually given that title just as I returned from maternity leave! I am grappling with two things – one is obviously a nine month old baby. I realize now what luxury I had with time before [laughs], and now it’s very challenging not because I have to spend time with her but because I want to.

Two, professionally, I’m at a really exciting point and all I want to do is go to events and talk on panels and spend all this extra time focusing on my career, and yet, I have Parker at home! Trying to reconcile the acceleration in my professional life with this new very time consuming but amazing addition to my personal life is my current challenge.

 Sydney presenting at Green Build. 

Sydney presenting at Green Build. 

How have you been able to integrate all that you do with motherhood?

I’m lucky to have a husband who is a true partner in raising Parker with me, which allows me to attend some of the things that I’d like to. Moms are also hyper efficient – it’s the truth. You get really good at prioritizing, and I’m getting a lot better at saying, “This is not needed right now, whereas this is absolutely critical so let’s focus on that.” Also, figuring out who I trust to get things done rather than feeling like I have to do it all myself, has been helpful.

 Sydney with husband, Justin Field. 

Sydney with husband, Justin Field. 

Delegating is a skill! Looking back at your career, what have been the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of architects say this, is balancing any sort of non-work time with work time. I found that whenever I was an “Architect” in a true architecture firm, it became my entire life. As soon that that became not okay, I had to be okay changing to a situation that I preferred. Most of the time where I took a seemingly tangential career step, it was because I had a lot of other interests outside the office that I wanted to make sure to still get to pursue.

What have been some highlights and what are you most proud of?

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve done a lot of different stuff. My path hasn’t been super linear, but I’ve found something joyful in every job I’ve had. Some of the highlights have been getting to build a strawbale wall in Northern California, or when I worked and studied abroad in Italy, shadowing an Italian architect for a while and see a renovation of a bridge in Venice. The thread has been such that in every job I’ve had, there has always been something new, interesting, challenging and rewarding, whether it was true architectural practice or teaching or construction or research.

Also when I was here in New York City, I remembering having discussions with Kohler and them deciding to change their fixture line because the way they were doing testing and showing flow rates wasn’t sustainable enough. Having these really meaningful conversations on sustainability with various industry players has been key as well.

What has been your general approach to your career?

Change has certainly been a consistent factor. My approach through grad school though was always, “What can I do to make myself a better architect that isn’t necessarily through practicing architecture.” I always thought to myself that if I really understand structural engineering, that will make me a better architect, or if I really understand sustainable design, that will make me a better architect as well. Once I discovered that I really loved the subject of building materials and getting to research that concretely, I thought, “You know what, if something interests me and I like it, I don’t have to do it just because it’ll make me a better architect – I can do it because I love it, period. My love and interest for architecture won’t go away, but this way I can contribute to the built environment in a way that’s better suited for me.”

Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers in the built environment?

When I taught, the advice I tended to give is that if you are someone that is interested in going into the profession, get some experience at a firm while you’re still in school so that you have a good sense of what making buildings and practicing architecture is really about.

Then, if your passion is indeed building, or buildings, there are a lot of avenues for being involved other than just the design of the spaces themselves. It takes a large and robust team to execute a design, and I really love that you have to work with all these different personalities and skill sets - you can be any one of them! You don’t have to be just the person making the Revit model – you can be in the field, or you can specialize in a specific area, and still have an impact on the outcome.

 Amanda Kaminsky and Sydney on a jobsite, courtesy of the Durst Organization

Amanda Kaminsky and Sydney on a jobsite, courtesy of the Durst Organization

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