Alumni Spotlight: Emilio Armstrong '04

Emilio Armstrong '04

Name: Emilio Armstrong
Hometown: Concepción, Chile (now in Houston, Texas)
Major: Master of Architecture
Graduation Year: 2004
Employer: Armstrong Worldwide Group LLC
Title: President

Why did you choose the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design? What drew you to design?

I chose the University of Houston because, at that time, there was an exchange program related to Virtual Reality led by Professor Elizabeth Bollinger and Graduate Assistant Hector Garcia. I met Professor Bollinger in Chile. She was a research scholar from The Fulbright Association and taught in a recognized Public University at Concepción City in 1998. She told me how amazing the University of Houston was, and I was impressed. I had already completed an undergraduate degree in Architecture when I applied for the exchange program. Both my parents were designers, so creative talent was in my DNA. Professor Bollinger had a deep international understanding of the world and the future role of technology. We became close friends, and she has been an incredible advisor to me since then.

While at the University of Houston for two semesters, I was a research scholar at the College of Architecture. After the exchange program, I received an invitation from Dean Joe Mashburn and Assistant Dean Trang Phan to apply for the Master of Architecture program, and I was accepted. I felt very welcome because UH is well known for its diversity and presence in the international community. Today, under Dean Patricia Oliver, the college enrollment is the highest it has ever been, opportunities in industrial design and interior architecture are growing exponentially, and we are recognized as one of the top 35 “Most Admired Architecture Schools” in the United States, according to DesignIntelligence. I am also very proud to have one of the best presidents UH has ever seen, President Renu Khator.

Was there any particular professor or project that impacted your education?

Many of my professors were important to my education at UH. Each of them generously shared with students their knowledge, not only about the profession, but also about life. It is rare to find such a deep commitment from faculty, but you truly find it at the UH College of Architecture and Design. Bruce Webb pushed my creativity; Ronnie Self helped me to stay consistent between my idea and the resulting design; Rives Taylor taught me everything about sustainability; Joseph Colaco and I had the most intense discussions about skyscrapers and earthquakes; Tom Colbert was all about the barrier that will protect Houston from Hurricanes. Although I did not have any classes with Shafik Rifaat, he is one of the smartest professors I know. He allowed me to work with him, and we remain close friends, today.

Many important projects come to my mind when I think about my time at UH, but I will never forget our studio project for the Institute of Molecular Medicine. The program came from an architecture firm that was doing the actual project. I studied it to the most exquisite detail, designed the project, and presented my final pinup to the architecture firm as our jury. To my surprise, one of the architects on the jury said I had designed almost the same project the architecture firm had designed. I could not believe it, and it has been an experience hard to forget.

Another project that stands out was one I submitted for an International Metal Competition in Chicago.  That project taught me to be humble.  I was sure I was going to win at least an honorable mention award, and I received nothing.  I learned a lesson in humility very quickly.

What has been your career path since graduation? Where are you currently working and in what capacity?

As soon as I graduated from UH, I got my Optional Practice Training work permit and started to work at SIR Inc., Architects and Planners, a firm well recognized by the AIA. I worked on Tony’s Restaurant at Greenway Plaza and the Lotus Pavilion, among many other projects.

In 2005, I returned to Chile and became a partner of Armstrong, F & H. Architects, one of the largest architecture firms in the second largest city of Chile, Concepción. We had projects nationwide managing a large range of projects, including health care, commercial, and residential. The first project I was involved with was a national competition to design a Casino. At the same time, I started as a studio professor for the College of Architecture at Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD), the private university where I received my undergraduate degree and license in architecture.

After some years of teaching and practicing architecture, I left my position at the architecture firm, in 2009, to become the Director of the College of Architecture at UDD. After three years of hard work, my team and I almost doubled enrollment and received one of the highest quality certifications among architecture colleges in Chile.

In 2012, I got a call to run for Mayor of Concepción about four months before the election.  I knew it was almost impossible to get elected, but I also knew that the hardest paths in life had given me the most amazing times, so I accepted. I received almost 40% of the votes, and since It was an incredible surprise for everyone since I had not been involved in politics before.  Even though I did not win, it was a platform that allowed me to run for State Commissioner. This time, I won the highest majority in the district. At the same time, I returned part-time to the university and served as the Director of Innovation. Both positions were a perfect balance between public service and private development.

At the State level, I promoted the creation of the Science and Technology Commission and approved funds for several programs and projects, mostly for people in need.  After three years, I became The President of the State Commissioners, and I felt honored to get the support of 100% of my colleagues even though we had different political views.

At the university, we enhanced the Ecosystem of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  I worked very hard on different entrepreneurial and innovation programs, many of which were in partnership with the Technology Venture Program from Stanford University.  After five years, we received first place in “Innovation in Higher Education” by the Industrial Corporation for the Development of the Bio Bio Region. We were competing with universities twice our size and with more than 90 years of history. For three years, I served on the jury of the Avonni National Innovation Competition, which was a tough job because we received high-quality entrepreneur projects to judge.

In 2018, I was appointed by the President of Chile, Mr. Sebastian Piñera, as State Director of Housing and Urban Planning for the Government of Chile of the Bio Bio Region. It was a great honor to serve my country. I had the opportunity to advise and improve public policies that impacted the quality of life of thousands of people. I worked with my team to solve several projects that, for many reasons, had gone unresolved for years. This experience was, by far, one of the most exciting and rewarding positions an architect could hold.

In January of 2019, I moved to Houston. My wife, Kelly Robichau, also a graduate of the UH College of Architecture and Design, and I were expecting our first child. Unfortunately our baby needed a difficult and complex surgery at four days old. We thank God that Texas Children’s Hospital was able to provide the care we needed. Now our baby daughter is ten months old and recovering very well.

Because of our daughter’s on-going medical needs, I had to resign from my government position in Chile. I created a company here in Houston, named Armstrong Worldwide Group LLC. Today I am partnering with Chilean investors on business opportunities in Houston and American companies looking to invest or sell products and services in Chile.

What does a typical day look like in your job?  What is it like to work both in Houston and internationally simultaneously?

Every day is a challenge. I make efforts to bring together two cultures conducting business in different ways and look for the same results. There are a profound will and confidence from both countries to do international business due to Chile being the best Latin American ally of the United States for the last decade.

What is one accomplishment of your career, of which you are particularly proud? How do you feel that the college prepared you for this?

I am most proud of my proven ability to serve others. I would say most architecture students’ dream is starting their own firm and becoming recognized for their designs. On some level, I followed that dream at the architecture firm back in Chile. I was always impressed by the commitment and attention of my instructors in the University of Houston College of Architecture. I left UH with the desire to give back in the same way, no matter where my career path took me.

Nevertheless, who could dream an architect would become an innovator working with engineers, businessmen, designers, start-ups, incubators, accelerator agencies, public funds and exchanging experiences with one of the most well-known universities in the Silicon Valley and the world...

...or become an elected politician to represent hundreds of thousands of people, having to make decisions impacting their quality of life with a limited budget of $185 million per year…

...or being appointed by the president of Chile to lead the Housing and Urban Planning Department of my region, managing a $500 million annual budget with about 700 employees.

My work experience is due to the educational exposure, both technical and creative, I received at the UH College of Architecture and Design. I gained the tools, confidence, and knowledge, but more than anything, the flexibility and versatility to create an internal driving force that made me always believe the sky is the limit.

What is a valuable lesson you learned during your time at the Hines College of Architecture and Design? 

I learned to avoid having preconceived ideas about people from different cultures.  Even though one could say this is due to human interaction, I see it as a lesson having to do with architecture. I learned architecture transcends borders and time. We design buildings and public spaces for people, and we are compelled to design for the future. Today, someone can be working in a Houston architecture firm on a project developed for Asia and hiring architects in Latin America.

What is a piece of advice you would give to current Architecture and Design students?

My best advice to the students is to be sure you have the passion for this work, work hard, and always respect the intentions of the client. Try not to stay too long in your comfort zone and seriously consider new, challenging opportunities. The hardest paths will give you the best experience and faster growth.