Jon Robertson ('97,'98,'05) and Alex Heim ('08,'10) discuss sustainability, Jon’s 20th reunion and keeping in touch after camp.

Camp Rising Sun from different generations share a common experience and often much more. This week, Alex Heim interviewed Jon Robertson about his life 20 years after first attending CRS, their shared interest in sustainability and green buildings and much more.

Jon Robertson

Jon Robertson

When we reached out to Alex to interview Jon, she said, “It's actually a funny story- Jon helped me land my current job. We work for the same company but in different offices. He is in Austin and I am in Toronto. I am currently working as Junior Building Analyst with the Toronto commissioning team. I think it is a great story that demonstrates how strong and positive the CRS network is and how it continually helps people to find their passions and make new relationships."

Alex: What do you do now? How did you end up there?

I went to Mississippi State University and started studying Mechanical Engineering thinking I would be some sort of glorified auto mechanic. But I wanted to do more than just push buttons for a living. An air conditioning class made me realize I really enjoyed the design aspect of it and the practical application of physics.

Doing consulting brings math, physics, and psychology together. You have to be able to predict human behavior, understand how people move from space to space and how buildings are used. On a whim, I applied to work for a company in California and they accepted me. One of my favorite quotes is by Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” That was my philosophy, the job was the excuse. It was really to say, “Why not? Let’s give it a try and get out of my comfort zone.” Working in an environmental engineering firm in California, I learned the basics of consulting engineering, that process takes precedent and that you cannot compromise your design to please an architect. But I got tired of designing places for pumps, I wanted to design places for people.

I ended up making the switch to focus on commercial design and on a whim again and the idea of “why not,” I made the move to Integral Group in Oakland, CA, at the time a small boutique firm that specialized in sustainable building design. This was a good fit for me, perhaps from my connection to the outdoors or the ideals I learned at Camp Rising Sun about making the world a better place. Joining the firm was hectic – there were no protocols, designs were all over the place, and the staff was very junior. I had 5 years of experience and was one of the most senior people. A lot of responsibility was dumped on me but I embraced it, for the most part, and within 5 years we had turned processes around, we had standardization, and quality became part of the office culture.

This experience made me passionate about deep green engineering and the principle that buildings should do no harm or the least amount of harm as possible while providing a safe, healthy, and comfortable places to live, work, and play.

However, helping to institute a culture of quality and grow the firm to be a world leader in sustainable design gradually wore on me over time. At a certain point, I got fed up with the working-life and burned out because of the amount of responsibility and trying to maintain company culture as we grew like crazy – we went from a staff of 40 to 80 in our Oakland office in just 4 years. It was all getting too much for me and I decided I needed a break. So within two weeks I decided to quit my job, had sublet my apartment, and had strapped my BBQ smoker to the roof of my station wagon beginning an epic 17,000 mile, 44 state, 4-month long trip around the US. I wanted this trip to help me figure out what the meaning of life is, to relax, and to take a break. I traded BBQ for free nights to rest, visited a lot of camp people and other friends, and visited every place I had ever wanted to go as I traveled across the country. It was really special. I never figured out what the meaning of life is, but I did figure out what I wanted out of life.

Jon bowling with his Austin office team

Jon bowling with his Austin office team

With this knowledge in mind when my trip came to a close, I interviewed with a lot of firms in search of my dream job and got a lot of amazing offers to lead design teams at various companies. At the last minute I ended up talking with Integral Group again and they offered me the opportunity to help open a new office and build a team in Austin, Texas. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” In April of 2016, I rejoined the firm as Associate Principal and was welcomed back with open arms.  

We are a small office here in Austin which has made me wear a lot of hats – I am the senior technical engineer for mechanical and plumbing design, project manager, mentor, IT specialist, administrative staff ensuring we have the tools we need and fruit in our fruit basket, and even janitor depending on the needs of the day. This position has given me what I was looking for, which is a leadership role and the chance to build my own team from the ground up ingraining many of my views and principles into our office culture.

Alex: What made you interested in sustainability in the first place? Were you Influenced by Camp Rising Sun?

I have always had a passion for the outdoors. I was in the Boy Scouts when I was kid and my father had the mantra of “leave this place better than how you found it.” Also, growing up in Mississippi and being outdoors a lot, I have always had that connection to the natural environment, and having it be available to the next generation was impressed upon me at a young age.

At Camp Rising Sun we have always been told to change the world, that we would be the next world leaders, that we should strive to do great things to change the world. These principles coupled together have shaped my drive to make this world a better place and doing sustainable building design is the outlet that I found to accomplish that. It’s been a great ride so far and actually something that I have been good at. It is something that I have fully embraced and is my opportunity to change the world and make it a better place.

Alex: How does Camp Rising Sun impact your career today?

Camp impressed upon me the idea that we have to power to change the world if we want to. Now I joke with my staff about changing the world one building at a time.

From a leadership perspective, a lot of the skills that I have now have their foundations at Camp Rising Sun. I work with a myriad of clients and what I learned at CRS is that in order to achieve what you want, you have to speak to what is important to somebody else. Having high-performing buildings or reducing the carbon footprint might not be what drives the other person, but Camp taught me to balance my goals with the other person’s goals and to develop a means to find a common language to speak on. Right now I’m talking with a couple of clients and sustainability never comes up because they just don’t care, instead, we just talk about reducing ongoing energy costs. With another one, we talk about resiliency. In another project, the owner is concerned with how much they can lease the space for, so speaking about indoor comfort and indoor air quality has allowed for us to implement our agenda for deep green engineering, again without mentioning sustainability, and also for the owner to have a higher value development.

Alex: Which Camp Rising Sun values do you use today?

From a leadership perspective, the idea of leading from behind is something I picked up at Camp Rising Sun. There are two types of leaders. There are the ones that lead from the front, which is, essentially, “my way or the highway.” Or the ones that lead from behind, where you are pushing everyone along to a common goal. I prefer to lead from behind and to empower people to make their own decisions instead of pulling them along kicking and screaming.

I also learned to continually challenge myself. The message that you can accomplish more than you thought really stuck with me and has pushed me a lot along the way. Instead of being content with where I am in life, I am always trying to define my next goal. Staying in contact with my campmates over the years and their varied careers has given me much inspiration. In particular, my campmate Orian Marx has helped shape a lot of what I have done throughout my life as far as goal setting and what the next steps are.

The third bit of it is globalization. I can easily talk about friends that I have in a certain place or about little bits of culture of different parts of the world. This is paying off really impressively right now as I am proposing on projects in Serbia and another one in Bahrain and being able to draw upon different interactions I had 20 years ago has paid off a lot with what is culturally important in these regions. Knowing that cultures are different and that coming in with the American way of design just doesn't work in other countries, there are other norms you have to be aware of.

Alex: It’s your 20th reunion year. How has your relationship with camp evolved?

Unfortunately, right after camp, I lost touch for 7 years due to a variety of reasons. Facebook wasn’t around and not everyone had email in the late 90s. I went back in 2005 as a drama counselor and as a lifeguard and that got me reconnected with Camp and since then I've been rekindling these relationships and building new connections. Getting reacquainted with Camp allowed me to remember how much of an impression it had on me as far as how it shaped my life.

CRSAA in California 

CRSAA in California 

It was always told to me that “Camp Rising Sun is free, it’s a full scholarship, and he only thing we ask of you is that you give back to the world.” This partially shaped why I got into sustainability and building design. In a different way, I was looking for how to give back to place that I feel has given me so much. I never had an outlet to do it other than financially, which I couldn’t do during college and high school. Being a counselor helped filled that desire to give back and when I moved to California I joined the CRSAA there. Joining the California CRSAA linked me to people from different years and introduced me to other ways to give back to Camp – at first just cooking BBQ for our get togethers, then helping by reviewing applications, then assisting with interviews, and eventually getting involved with other CRSAAs (and kudos to Rachel Canter for starting the Mississippi CRSAA).

Camp Rising Sun alumni in Texas earlier this year

Camp Rising Sun alumni in Texas earlier this year

During this time, I was introduced to the current ED, Judy Fox, who planted the seed in my head to join the B&G committee. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for and my way to give back to camp. Since then I have been pretty involved with the B&G committee, recently donating around $10k hours worth of pro-bono time to do an engineering study of the Clinton campus as well as peer reviewing other reports to keep the Clinton campus up and running and how to preserve the Redhook campus. The outpour of support and validation that I received from the community about how welcome and appreciated my volunteer work was put a smile on my face and pushed me to be even more involved.

Together with other alumni here in Texas, we are trying to get a CRSAA chapter started, get some movement, and perhaps at some point start getting campers from here too. The last two years have been fantastic in terms of being involved with Camp.

Alex: What advice do you have for people that are in a similar situation here you were a few years ago?

1. Don't give up on Camp. CRS is a family, there are good times and bad, but don't let the bad outweigh the good. As in any family, there will always be a home for you if you choose to be part of the community.

2. Pick up the phone, or send a text, or connect on Facebook. When I was doing my road trip, campers with whom I wasn't that close would message me randomly, "Hey I know it’s been 18 years, but I see you are doing this amazing thing so would you like to stay in our house for the weekend or grab a coffee." Active and passive communications is very important.

3. If you feel a need to give back, or if you feel like you have lost touch with camp, join a committee to get more involved as we all have special skills to contribute. Now is the time to become re-engaged with camp and help out where possible, whether it is through donation of hours or financially. This is the time to shine and for the alumni to give back to the foundation that gave us so much. LAJF and Camp are more than welcoming to anyone that wants to help out.

Jon: It's not been long since you were out of camp, what have you seen as the challenges of staying in touch with LAJF or challenges with post-camp depression and that sort of thing? 

Alex: For me, a challenge of being a younger person who has a more recent departure is that you go through this awkward phase between high school, university and early career, you want to travel and see friends but you are not able financially. I wasn't able to study abroad, so I had to do it virtually. That's why I remained mostly in touch with friends in the US or go to alumni events and find other outlets to find camp.

That's why I find sustainability so appealing, it's not just a principle applied to science, it's a way of life. You can apply the principles of sustainability to everything. One factor I think of a lot is that sustainability implies slow gradual change, as an alumna that's how you evolve with Camp. At first, you think things will happen really quickly and you will be able to donate a lot etc. but it really is slower and organic.

Jon: What have been some of the most helpful things that Camp has given you for High School or college, career?

Alex Heim

Alex Heim

Right now camp just helps me as an American to stand outside of what is currently going on and examine the state of global affairs. Camp has really rounded me into someone that I wouldn't have been otherwise. I grew up in an area that is very close minded and conservative. Camp helped me question reality and realize that there may be another side to every story. Montreal is a super multicultural city, it's bilingual, and just having that desire to be open minded has opened better opportunities to find other things in life. It has helped me seek out different perspectives.

I have also learned smaller scale things: Camp breeds leaders that are a part of the team, not the head of the team. I have a relatively strong personality and inherently want to be front and center so learning how to take a step back has been really important. I have grown into someone that takes pride in seeing others succeed, not just through my own accomplishment. It is not just a skill, it's a gift. When you get into suitability you are not in it for yourself, you are in if for everybody.

Jon: I don't know if camp teaches being humble or not, but I think many alumni get a lot of benefit from learning that leading everyone else to a greater good is better than being the leader.

Jon: If you had one or two bits of advice to give to the younger alumni, what would it be?

Alex: The most recent piece of wisdom with landing this job is to be stubborn about what goals you set for yourself, people kept telling me to just apply for whatever because this was my first job. But I stuck with my goal, I didn't sacrifice my desires and principles and I ended up exactly where I wanted to be. So my advice is to have the mental strength to push through, find the opportunities and chase them. Once you do that the payoff is much more.

My last piece of advice is to never stop reaching out and making camp connections and of course on other networks. Find a different type of food, new movie, new book, never stop learning about the world. It's the most enriching thing you can have in your life.

Jon: Finally, can you tell us a bit about your job?

A: I work at Integral Group too. I am a Junior Building Analyst, I work with the commissioning team in Toronto and we assess everything from design, to when the building is running, to further optimizing. I love the job.