State of the Planet

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MS Alum Constructs Career for the Built Environment

M.S. in Sustainability Management alum Steve Burke ('13)
M.S. in Sustainability Management alum Steve Burke (’13)

M.S. in Sustainability Management alum Steve Burke (’13) has always had a passion for the built environment. Prior to joining the MSSM program, Steve interned at a sustainable design firm focused on residential retrofits, worked for a commercial sustainable flooring retailer and installer, and spent a year on an organic farm. Steve is also a certified solar installer in North Carolina as well as a building energy auditor and weatherization specialist. He currently works at Symmes Maini Mckee & Associates (SMMA), a multi-disciplinary architecture and engineering firm for sustainable efforts in the built environment. Steve hopes to continue his push for sustainable solutions until it becomes fully embedded within his work environment.

1. What is your current job?

I am currently a Sustainability Coordinator at Symmes Maini Mckee & Associates (SMMA). SMMA is a multi-disciplinary architecture and engineering firm with offices in New England and North Carolina. I help to administer LEED projects and facilitate project teams, clients, and consultants in delivering sustainable design practices.

I also ensure that sustainability efforts persist throughout SMMA and its employees by keeping the company in compliance with regulatory policies and up to date on best practices. On any given day, I could be working with the owner of a high-rise residential building pursuing LEED certification, developing protocols for commercial building owners to document energy conservation measures, or discussing materials transparency with product manufacturers and vendors.

2. Do your current job responsibilities align with the professional goals that you originally had when you began the MSSM program?

I am very fortunate that my current work directly aligns with my field of interest that I hoped to have access to when I finished my Sustainability Management degree. I was already passionate about sustainability in the built environment before starting the program, and this degree has been an excellent conduit to a number of opportunities in that line of work.

It has helped me that the built environment is an area that is perhaps creating the greatest concentration of sustainability job openings. The explanation for this is based in many different issues, but the large selection of jobs helped me tailor my focus to what I wanted. It is also encouraging to think that for other MSSM students looking to pursue careers similar to my own, this proliferation of opportunities will hopefully lead to success for them as well.

3. What skills has the MSSM program taught you that you think have proven useful to your current position? 

This is probably an atypical response, but I think one of the most useful by-products of the program is the ability to communicate complex topics in a straightforward manner. Sustainability management graduates are bridging the worlds of business and science: This requires understanding and becoming conversant in two very different vocabularies and conceptual frameworks. Then, in practice, the sustainability manager often merges those two otherwise distinct perspectives, and distills the information in a language that is accessible to a broader audience.

This skill of being able to talk both technically or generally depending on your audience is an important characteristic of effective communicators. Sustainability managers are somewhat forced into finessing these skills by default, since they are frequently working with many different constituents. This is something I still try to improve on a regular basis; thinking about how you communicate and what makes sense for each audience can greatly influence your efficacy.

4. What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through this job?

I think with any job, it should be seen as a chance to not just increase your professional experience level, but to push yourself into seeing how you can assist others. There is a social dynamic to sustainability, and the more that we can enable others to implement sustainability practices of their own, the more success we will find collectively. So, my hope is that I find additional tools and resources to help me facilitate that process of empowerment.

5. How has collaborating with your fellow students in class projects benefitted you professionally and personally?

In my opinion, the students are the strongest aspect of the MSSM program. I have yet to meet a broader group of such qualified, talented, intelligent, and charismatic people. I learned an immense amount from them, and I find that I am a much more rounded professional, thanks to my exposure to all of their skill sets.

Whether it was their approach to problem solving, the methods and tools students used to present information, or their unique, strategic perspectives for systemic sustainability transformation, I always felt enlightened after any collaboration.

6. What kinds of environmental initiatives do you hope to start in your new position?

This is an incredibly exciting time to be working in the built environment. Zero net energy buildings are becoming a viable reality, sustainable design leaders are inspiring transparency in the building products market, tools for evaluating building life-cycle impacts are coming online, utilities are funding programs for energy efficiency to reduce energy demand, energy codes are pushing designers and engineers to create much more efficient buildings, and the list goes on. With all of this in the background, I have no shortage of initiatives to focus on, and thankfully I work at a firm with a commitment to innovation in sustainability.

7. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MSSM program to further your career?

When I first started the MSSM program I attended a panel discussion of student practitioners in sustainability. One of the panelists was asked where she imagined herself in 5 years. Her response was that she would hopefully be at a different company or in a different position because she had embedded sustainability to the point she was no longer needed.

This really resonated with me, and I took it on as my permanent goal. This is a unique challenge for sustainability managers: using this logic, the ultimate metric for success is your obsolescence, because you have been able to design yourself out of the solution. This is what I will strive for in this position and all future sustainability issues that I face in my career. Thankfully, I feel the MSSM program has given me the skills I need to face that challenge.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more. 

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