Opinion & Editorial

The Future of the Environment and Workforce Sustainability


St. Louis-based architect Mary Ann Lazarus has developed a well-decorated career at a variety of acclaimed firms, including the New York-based global design firm HOK, adjunct teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as her current role as architect and consultant at St. Louis’ Cameron MacAllister Group. Lazarus has also homed in on the art of building sustainability, which is particularly fitting for her role as the sustainability program’s Faculty and Program Coordinator for the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS) at Washington University in St. Louis.

Through Lazarus’ painstaking handiwork, the sustainability program’s depth of offerings has grown considerably. Students enjoy fulfilling careers in business, consulting and more upon graduation, through exposure to industry professionals like Lazarus and the adjoining program faculty.

Think your schedule would prevent you from achieving a degree in sustainability? Think again. The program’s courses are offered outside of traditional working hours, so working professionals can pursue this exciting degree option. It worked well for alum Colleen Autry, who graduated from the program in 2016 and now has a job in the field with DJM Ecological Services. “Because the program integrates numerous disciplines, we learned to approach problems as an ecosystem and address numerous aspects, whether economic, social or environmental,” says Autry. “We learned to connect the dots before trying to apply a temporary band-aid solution to a problem, so we could find solutions that really work.”

We spoke with Lazarus to learn more about the program, offerings, options and more. She’ll also be teaching a class next spring, “Introduction to Resilience,” which offers a broad understanding of the concept of resilience from an environmental, social and economic perspective. Visit the sustainability program page to learn more about enrollment.

Tell me about your background in the field of sustainability and your role with CAPS.
When I arrived at my current role with University College (now CAPS), I’d already been an adjunct faculty member at WashU but hadn’t worked with the CAPS program specifically yet. I’m an architect by training, and my career has largely been working on sustainable outcomes through the built environment. My focus on sustainability has been largely about understanding the ways we can effect positive change towards a resilient future through science, government and design, which is where my depth is.

When I was asked to lead the sustainability program at University College (now CAPS), I was able to bring a different perspective as a working professional, and in designing the program, we really thought about how this degree would enable graduates to positively impact real-life experiences. I look at the concept of sustainability as a lens that can be applied to almost anything for a better outcome.

WashU’s sustainability program has really narrowed down the most impactful things for students to learn—the real fundamentals that I wish I’d learned when I was in architecture school.”

What is unique about this particular sustainability program?
Students learn a really deep understanding of environmental science and its real-world implications, from law to business and policy, as well as techniques for sustainable thinking, strategic planning. Really, understanding how to shift outcomes through different processes is fundamental to the sustainability degree. So we have those core areas of study, and then program areas that can be applied to an existing career or give students a leg up in a sustainability-focused career direction.

As someone who has dedicated her life to this area of practice and study, what excites you most about this program?
I’m a very mission-driven person. My whole career has been about changing the outcomes of the built environment, and the opportunity to help facilitate top-notch education for motivated students who can apply it to their lives is amazing to see. There aren’t very many undergraduate programs in sustainability to begin with, much less those that can be offered to students who work full time. Plus, the CAPS program brings the incredible resources of this globally ranked university to the wider St. Louis population at an affordable rate. As someone who really wants to see more positive change enacted in the world, that really appeals to me.

Sustainability is also subject matter that can lead students in the direction of really rich, rewarding careers. They can build professional connections with faculty who are sustainability leaders in the community and who work in the field—that’s often the case with many CAPS programs. For example, Catherine Werner, sustainability director for the city of St. Louis, is on our faculty.

Once graduating, what do you hope students take away from this program?
When I began designing course work and curriculum for the program, I did quite a bit of research as well as interviewing current students, graduates, faculty and people in the St. Louis community about what the goals of the program should be and what their current experiences were. The changes we made in the last several months came out of lots of conversations and research.

We’ve boiled it down to a few fundamental outcomes for students. First, when they come out of the program, they’ll be able to explain the fundamental elements of sustainability. Second, they’ll be able to research, evaluate and design solutions to sustainability problems in the world—which takes that first outcome to the next level. And third, they’ll know how to promote sustainability outcomes, whether through business, consulting work, or wherever else their careers take them.