I’ve learned courage.

Student Spotlight


Michelle Santos, LEED AP, is an assistant project manager for a high-end residential builder in Palo Alto, and a Fall 2018 graduate of MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design Program.

What attracted you to MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program?
The most unique qualities of the program are the interdisciplinary approach, having students from various backgrounds and locations, and the online platform.


Has anything you’ve learned in the program changed your way of thinking?
Absolutely. I have gone from working as a silo and control freak to collaborating, engaging and empowering others, and being much more patient and flexible with others and with myself.


Has anything you’ve learned in the program changed what you’d like to do with your career?
Yes! I thought I would have to change careers to be satisfied, but I really only needed to change my perspective and tools.


What has surprised you about the program?
The Sustainable Design community is so patient and gracious in bringing up young sprouts! Coming from a very competitive environment, this was a bit of a change. It’s taught me how to flow in either a collaborative or competitive environment and reshaped my understanding of competition altogether. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes, “The long-zoom approach lets us see that openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms… by embracing these patterns we can build environments that do a better job of nurturing good ideas…”


Is there a class project or assignment that you are really proud of?
I’m most proud of my thesis, but the comprehensive web-based portfolio really blew my mind.

The last few weeks of the program I really pushed to get my thesis to a state with which I was satisfied. That process felt like it would break me, but I listened to my committee and sacrificed everything to get it to that state. Now it’s one of those things I want everyone to see. I’ve never felt like that about any of my academic work.

“Seeing how much I learned at MCAD and how much my work improved, how my visual communication improved — have really improved my confidence as a sustainable professional. That has empowered me to make even more positive decisions about who I am as a designer and manager.” ~ Michelle Santos


Selected results from Santos’s thesis Methods of Sustainable Home Design and Construction – An Approach to Navigating Sustainability Approaches


What is the most exciting or inspiring thing you’ve learned in the program so far?
The most inspiring thing I learned in the program was a deeper understanding of how to use biophilic design and biomimicry, which are two very different design approaches. These are tools I will continue to think about and use in various aspects of design, not just for buildings.

Spaces and Places to Connect, Disconnect, and Re-Connect | project by Santos for Systems Thinking course


What has been your proudest moment or project in sustainability or sustainable design?
My final thesis review was the best moment of my time at MCAD, and in my academic career. It felt like a really good design crit mixed with an awards ceremony and I had to force myself not to cry at the end. The feedback I received was so constructive. I learned that your thesis can be really great, but if you don’t tell a good story and give your intended audience what they need to understand your process, people will struggle with their feedback.


What are you currently doing or working on?
I’m currently working on the design development and construction documents for the project covered in my thesis, which is a multi-family eco-home that starts in 2019. I will be starting a 3-month post-graduate Design Thinking program at MIT in February, and am thinking about a Ph.D. program in either architecture and the environment or sustainable construction. I’m also continuing my rewarding career in construction and am interested in exploring methods and processes that can improve construction and construction management.


What sustainability or sustainable design projects are you looking forward to working on?
I’m really interested in helping define sustainable construction. I’m also interested in understanding the convergence of sustainable design theory and practice.  I like to keep one foot in academia and one foot in the office, and I’m looking forward to finding ways to bridge the gap between the two perspectives.


What have you learned in the program that you wish everyone would learn?
I’ve learned courage. Everything has shifted for me since starting the MASD program, which was a place and time where all of my academic, professional and personal passions came together. With the support of the faculty, students, readings and projects, the courage to try different things I had feared or resisted began to vanish. You may not have the same paradigm shift that I had, but if you stick with it and really push yourself, you will come out of this program better prepared to solve some of the toughest problems facing people and our planet — problems most people are uncomfortable even discussing let alone working on.

“I’ve learned that the life “tipping point” for me was this program” ~ Michelle Santos


If you had a magic wand and could completely solve one sustainability problem, what would it be?
I would re-evaluate fuel-based or energy-dependant living – there are other ways to live that do not require the burning of fuels for every process and product. Where and what would we be like without this limitation?


What recommendations do you have for people considering a career in sustainable design?
I recommend reading A LOT and talking to people in the field. Pick their brain, and learn all you can from the success of others. Find some inspiring projects and really study them. Remain skeptical. Try and test the things that you think are solutions, and then share your own solutions with as many people as possible. If you are visiting this blog and interested in the questions we are asking, the work we are doing, and the things that we care about, then join us! You can start by taking an introductory class or by writing an email to any one of us.


You can learn more about Michelle’s work on her website:


If you want to prepare yourself to solve some of the toughest problems facing people and the planet, explore our MA in Sustainable Design program!

Michelle Santos

Michelle Santos, LEED AP, currently works an assistant project manager for a high-end residential builder in Palo Alto. She has over 18 years of experience in the architecture, engineering and construction fields including sustainability consulting and solar energy engineering, procurement and construction. She graduated with a bachelor of architecture from California College of the Arts, San Francisco in 2010 and is most passionate about sustainable construction. She chose the MA in Sustainable Design program at MCAD to help her develop her ideas about sustainability education, stakeholder engagement and project team collaboration and to connect with like-minded faculty and professionals. Michelle is based in California.