Continuing our decade of memories to celebrate a decade of stok, we tapped one of stok’s earliest employees, Michael Hummel, to learn what drew him to the organization in the first place, and what has kept him constantly inspired throughout his entire stok experience.
How did you get connected to stok?
10 years ago, it would seem as though life had been leading me directly to Macko and stok. At the age of 40, I decided that my dream of pursuing a values-aligned dream career had reached a now-or-never reality. As I considered the nexus of my skills, interests, and dreams, it became clear that contributing as a deep-sustainability facilitator and informing design and engineering integration, would be more fruitful than directly practicing architecture. The US firms that were genuinely practicing this way at that time were few and far between, but located in geographic clusters, and most fair weather amongst them was clearly the San Francisco Bay Area.
During a two-week northern California road trip in the trusty 4-Runner, I took the opportunity to knock on stok’s door unannounced and introduce myself. They graciously invited me in and introduced me to the team, and I left them a copy of the foundational book “The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability,” and made myself available to them as soon as the need arose. With high hopes, over the coming months I kept my eyes peeled for an email, so when I saw a stok Craigslist ad for “Sustainability Consultant,” my heart leapt out of my chest. I attended a series of informal and personal interviews and ended up accepting the position. Prior to our grownup HR awareness today, I distinctly remember Macko saying, “Just so you understand, we usually don’t hire people as old as you.” Right then, I knew this would be a fun and transparent ride!
What were some of your challenges during the early years?
When I started with stok we were a team of seven. We were young, small, and scrappy, and it was not uncommon to sign a contract for far less than $10k, which is a tough budget to manage to say the least! Each person did all that they could, and often a little bit more, to make ends meet and keep our clients happy. I even performed some accounting work and project invoicing for a few seasons, which brought me a whole new appreciation for the financial side of the business.
At that time, many of the scopes we won we were doing for the first or second time – 179D Energy Efficiency Tax Deductions, LEED Building Commissioning, eQuest Energy Modeling, and Water Efficiency Audits, to name a few. Despite the obvious challenge of figuring it out as you go, it was really exciting to be learning how to approach every project from a shared perspective of sustainability and financial benefit. This win-win approach to client engagement has evolved into our current deeply client-centric business model and I believe is one of the foundations of our growth and success.
What projects were you working on?
The first project I led for stok was St. Peters Place, working with the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center and the Teams at HCLA, Ajmani & Pamidi, Miller LA, and Nibbi. This three-story apartment building provides affordable housing for people with developmental disabilities. The socially conscious development was exceptionally well designed and built, and was a positive and memorable team to work with. With features such as natural ventilation, radiant heating, exterior vertical fin shading, and outstanding outdoor spaces, this project achieved many sustainability goals that today’s best projects still struggle to achieve. At the time, St. Peter’s Place achieved LEED Homes Platinum as well as the highest GreenPoint rating to date.
Experience with these early projects, like St. Peter’s Place and the JATC Zero Net Energy Center, solidified for me that the most fun and successful project is one in the same, founded upon relationships of trust and shared vision to make the current project at hand our best ever.
What factors have contributed to stok’s growth?
I think the most powerful stok strategy for growth and success has been our aggressive and blue sky approach to goal setting. Throughout my time with stok, all team members have been encouraged to dream big and collaborate internally & externally toward realizing our potential. One of the personal goals I established early at stok was to identify and deliver to our clients what they need most, even when that outcome differed from the original expectation. This process includes uncommon research and consideration of a client’s history, business model, and fundamental project drivers. With these relationship-building tools, we are in a position to optimize our positive impact.
One project where this approach really came into play was Garden Village Apartments in Berkeley, CA. stok was originally engaged to provide ZNE feasibility services, but we went the extra mile to discover fundamental project drivers, which led us to couple our initial scope with a study of the community demographic. The resulting recommendation moved away from ZNE and toward a community-serving food roofs concept which found deep alignment with the neighborhood and city, and became one of the premier examples of community integrated development in the region.
Back then, could you have imagined stok being where we are today?
I always had high hopes for what stok would become, but our current state and trajectory feel like many multiples beyond what I had in mind. We always had a desire and expectation to be amongst the best at providing sustainability services, but the spirit of autonomy and the opportunity for collaboration with high quality individuals has led toward a greatly expanded vision of what purpose-driven friends can accomplish together.
What’s been the biggest change over the past decade, and what’s stayed the same?
Through the years, the friendships and familial environment has remained a consistent thread, and while we’ve always focused on hiring incredible, high quality individuals, we’ve recently begun to develop and implement equally incredible systems for these people to operate and optimize in. For all its youth (both in our team members – as Macko squarely pointed out many years ago – and as an organization), stok has exhibited a very mature presence.