Name:Sarah E. Maston
Title: President, Green Footprints Commissioning Inc.
Educational Experience: Bachelor of science mechanical engineering (BSME), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)
Professional Credentials/Accreditations:Professional engineer (P.E.); LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP); Building Commissioning Professional Certification (BCxP), ASHRAE; and Qualified Commissioning Process Provider (QCxP), University of Wisconsin
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards:ASHRAE Director-At-Large, 2018-2021; ASHRAE Distinguished Service Award
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
I think I always knew I would be an engineer. Throughout my early schooling, I excelled in math and science. I had a lot of support at home, because my dad is an engineer, and I liked looking over his blueprints and going to work with him. He would always take the time to explain things and would help with homework, even if he “didn’t do it like my teachers showed me,” which was probably our biggest argument growing up. In high school, I attended a college-sponsored, weeklong, “Girls in Engineering” program, where I was with other girls interested in engineering. That was a great experience, and I think it solidified my interest in pursuing engineering as a career. In my early college years, I applied for and received a summer internship with the company my dad worked for. I interned with them for two summers, first on a multidisciplinary team focused on process improvement, and the second to help with the implementation of the new process in the manufacturing facility. I found this to be so interesting, thus I knew I was on the right path.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
I enjoy the problem-solving and team building that is core to commissioning. Commissioning can be tough if you do not take the time to build relationships with team members. When issues do arise, and they always do, being able to work with the team to make them right, instead of pointing fingers, gets the job done faster. What is important is that issues are corrected early and quickly so that the project can stay on budget and schedule. Within the industry, commissioning authorities joke that we really don’t have any “authority” because, typically, the commissioning contract is with the building owner or project management company, which means contractors don’t have any contractual obligation to take our advice. So, building those relationships and getting to know people lets the team know you are there to help make a better product and not just to point out mistakes.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
One of the most difficult projects in my career happened more than a few years ago. As the commissioning engineer, I was working with the balancer and controls contractors to implement some energy-saving measures for a laboratory and office building that had 100% outside air units and ran at full load 24/7. We had to work overnight and reset the air changes per hour (AC/H) rates for an unoccupied mode. When we arrived on-site and were walking the building, we found that the design engineer who did all the calculations used old as-built drawings and didn’t spend much time on-site. The drawings were not accurate to the existing conditions at all. Suddenly, the scope of this project drastically increased, and we did not think there was any way we could keep the schedule. From that point on, I had to remeasure and confirm details on the drawings and then recalculate the airflows required for the new AC/H rates. We were on-site for two weeks, but it worked very well when we were done, and the client realized large savings on his energy bill. Together, we worked it out, each of us contributing to the team effort. I was very proud of our small team.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example?Why aren’t there more women in engineering? How can we increase the number of women in engineering?
This is a difficult question because I think every female engineer’s story is different, yet we all have had some similar experiences. When I was a young engineer and found myself doubting my abilities, I thought it was just me. But after I attended a meeting where an ASHRAE colleague, Dr. Julia Keen, presented her doctoral research on these exact questions, I found I wasn’t alone, and that inspired me both to do better and to help all my colleagues a little bit more. This quote, from Verna Myers, resounds with me: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” I think the current conversations in the greater society, and apparently around the world, on diversity and inclusion are healthy and exciting. This is not the end of a much-needed discussion but the beginning. Many industries are working to diversify and be inclusive of under-represented people, and we are making progress. I think more companies realize the benefits of diversity and importance of having different points of view at the table, and I have seen improvements in the 20 years I have been in the industry. We have to take it one step further though. We have to show women they belong in the industry. I think most women still do not feel valued as engineers and as individuals. We might feel tolerated, but we do not yet feel as though we fully belong. Being tolerated is a precarious place to be because we tend to hold back and do not participate as much as we could, or should, in brainstorming or strategic meetings. We do not want to lose the gains we have made. I think when women feel like they belong in the industry and can bring their whole selves to the table, women will stay.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
No two days are alike for me, especially during COVID. I run my own company of one. It’s just me. So, some days I am on-site performing installation verifications or testing equipment. Other days, I am catching up on paperwork because commissioning requires a lot of documentation. Still, other days, I may be sitting on Zoom calls, paying bills, marketing, or sending invoices. During COVID, I have also been active with ASHRAE’s Epidemic Task Force (ETF) as part of the Building Readiness Group. My ASHRAE colleagues Dennis Knight, Wade Conlan, and I have been giving presentations about how to mitigate the spread of COVID with HVAC systems. I have learned so much myself and appreciate the opportunity to help educate facility managers and owners to see how they can most cost-effectively adjust their systems to keep their tenants and staff safe.
What drives/motivates you every day?
To do better than the day before and to serve my clients to the best of my ability. Also, to be the best role model I can for my kids and kids that I come into contact with every day. I lead my daughter’s Girl Scout troop and help put together engineering badge workshops for our council. I tell the girls to be brave enough to “suck at something new,” which is very hard for teenage girls to do. Our troop recently completed a high-ropes course. This was not every girl’s strength, but we did it together. I have learned that not every girl will become an engineer, but by just opening the door and introducing them to it, some will continue to walk through to a world they didn’t know existed. I also serve on the parent review board for our high school’s engineering curriculum. As local engineers, we review senior design projects and give students feedback on the design process, materials selection and testing, and marketing products. It is so inspiring to see the progress these young men and women make over the course of the year, and many go on to pursue engineering in college.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
My oldest child started college this fall on campus in Iowa. It was tough knowing he was going to be far from home in the middle of a pandemic, but I was impressed with the school’s thorough plan and stages of implementation, which they released early in the summer. My younger child is in high school, and our district has opted for a hybrid schedule, so she is in school two days a week and online three days a week. Professionally, not much has changed. My largest client is our local hospital system, and other than some project staffing changes, the projects kept moving along. Being on the ETF has opened my eyes to how we maintain our buildings and where we fall short, particularly in schools.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I originally started my own company to chase work that I was interested in and to have the flexibility to spend time with my kids. Now that they are older, I hope to finally complete my paperwork for a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) certification and spend more time building my business. I look forward to the challenge.
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What’s one thing no one knows about you?
Our family enjoys visiting national parks. My husband and I honeymooned in Yellowstone, and we have loved the parks ever since. We always try to coordinate a park trip after the annual ASHRAE conferences in June. We have visited Yosemite, Sequoia, Olympic, Grand Tetons, Shenandoah, and Acadia, to name a few. I love the beauty and simplicity of hiking in the parks and enjoy our cultural heritage. I also consider myself to be a student of history and a casual Civil War buff. My parents live near Gettysburg National Military Park, and I always enjoy walking or riding my bike through the battlefields and immersing myself in the stories. For our 10-year anniversary, my husband and I visited many battlefields in Virginia, starting with Bull Run (Manassas) and ending with Appomattox. We didn’t visit every battlefield in between but we tried.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
I have had three really influential mentors in my career, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. There have also been many others who have extended a helping hand to assist me over a hurdle or two, and I am forever grateful to all of them. Howard McKew was my group leader for many years and introduced me to the commissioning process. Before I worked with Howie, I had been a design engineer. I had done this for many years but wasn’t excited about it anymore. Howie taught me about commissioning and project and business management. He also introduced me to ASHRAE, where my first “job” was editing a handbook chapter under his guidance. He also told me that, someday, he thought I could own my own business, which I thought was hilarious at the time. Over time, he encouraged me to get more involved in ASHRAE’s technical committees, which is where I met my next mentor, JR Anderson. When I met JR, he was the chair of the Commissioning Technical Committee, TC 7.9. JR was so welcoming and truly the nicest guy you would ever meet. You had no choice but to volunteer to help; so, I did. I became the programs sub-chair for the committee, and, from there, my ASHRAE education took off. JR would always take the time to check in with me to see if I had any questions. He was a great resource to me as a young engineer. Through these two fine engineers, I met my third mentor, Paul Tseng. Paul was a friend to both Howie and JR and was also involved in ASHRAE. Paul owns a commissioning firm in Maryland, and when I left the firm that Howie and I worked for, I went to work with Paul. I was still based in Massachusetts but managed projects for clients with multiple sites outside of Maryland, including San Antonio and Huntsville, Alabama. Paul trusted me to work with clients and set up my own projects locally. I became his Boston office and supported work in the Eastern U.S. I would not be where I am today without Howie, JR, and Paul. All of them took the time to mentor a young female engineer who they thought showed some promise. They treated me as an equal and encouraged me to believe in myself and my abilities.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
I have learned so much over the years from both my successes and failures, so it is hard to know where to even begin answering this question. I guess it would be to find your “squad.” Find other young engineers who you can grow with and learn from. Join a professional organization in your industry that will further your informal education. Never stop learning and find a good mentor. Many companies have mentoring programs, but the best mentors are the ones you seek out. This type of outreach often is hard, because it makes you vulnerable, but it will be the best thing you can do for your career. You can also give me a call, as I’m always happy to help.