For Clancy Olsen, member of the Universal Design Summit 7 (UDS7) Steering Committee, a profound experience as an undergrad set the stage for a promising career in architecture.

Gina Hilberry, for whom he now works for at Cohen Hilberry Architects, taught one of his classes at Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U). A UDS7 Steering Committee member and key presenter at numerous summits past, Prof. Hilberry challenged her students in a unique way.

“In one of our first classes, she had us get up, get away from our desks and walk around the campus. She quizzed us on what we thought worked well and didn’t work well from an accessibility standpoint,” Clancy recalls. “Instantly, I started thinking about things differently. I began noticing things like the steps leading up to the front doors of the building, the doors themselves outdated and probably weighing 20 pounds. She encouraged a new, more creative approach to thinking about design.”

After completing his Bachelor of Architectural Technology degree in 2008, Clancy went to work as an intern architect with Arcturis, a larger firm where he learned a great deal but didn’t get the amount of hands-on experience with the senior-level projects he truly desired.

An ongoing recession eventually cost many people their jobs at Arcturis, including Clancy. But it wasn’t long before his former Wash U professor came to him with an offer. Clancy’s been with Cohen Hilberry ever since, starting out as a project manager/designer and eventually advancing to his current position as Senior Project Architect.

He couldn’t reach that pinnacle, though, until he earned a Master’s in Architecture from an accredited graduate program and passed the necessary licensing exams. In need of a nontraditional classroom solution, Clancy chose Boston Architectural College, which offers a hybrid curriculum blending distance learning with intensive, in-person training. After seven grueling semesters, Clancy finally attained his degree and license in 2016, a road that was difficult but also exhilarating.

“The first two weeks you do from home, and they kind of lay the foundation of the project you’ll be working on. Then, you go to Boston and it’s 10 days of being in the studio, boots on the ground — very hard work,” Clancy describes. “You eventually present your project to a jury and they give you feedback. You then take your project back to St. Louis and finish the semester.”

And so the routine went for Clancy, all while juggling his responsibilities at Cohen Hilberry. He credits this balancing act with instilling the discipline and focus he now draws upon as a professional.

“It’s hard to be a full-time student while you’re also working full-time. When you’re dealing with the pressure of taking your licensing exams, it can make for a pretty rigorous schedule,” Clancy admits. “But I think having that experience of working in the office while remaining diligent about my schooling has really set me up for being successful.”

Cohen Hilberry prioritizes Universal Design in all of its projects, and Clancy enjoys the challenge of using inclusive design elements to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. His favorite example of this is Cohen Hilberry’s work on Garfield Commons, a 2015 renovation project that transformed a crumbling school in Benton Park West into permanent housing units for 25 St. Louisans experiencing homelessness. The undertaking involved more than the restoration of a decaying structure; it meant the creation of a residential environment that would be safe and inviting for people traumatized by life on the street.

“When you think about a population of homeless individuals, there’s a lot of different circumstances to consider,” Clancy acknowledges. “There’s people with substance abuse problems, malnutrition, disabilities and physical ailments, and the space must be responsive to all of their needs.”

In addition to furnishing shelter and resources for some of the most vulnerable in St. Louis, Clancy says people with ties to the old Garfield Elementary School are grateful it’s been resurrected in such an impactful manner.

“In the Benton Park neighborhood, just keeping that school building intact really preserved the integrity of that entire block,” Clancy reflects. “I think it’s important to preserve the fabric of a community and create a long-lasting legacy.”

For someone who has attended Universal Design summits in the past, first as a Wash U student and most recently as a presenter, an opportunity to serve on the UDS7 Steering Committee was impossible to pass up. A lot goes into planning such a momentous event, and he promises three days of the latest innovations and valuable insights from the foremost authorities in Universal Design.

“It’s been cool getting to work on the organizational side of the event. There will be a virtual component of this year’s conference but hopefully an in-person component as well,” Clancy explains. “As always, there will be an interesting collection of presenters and vendors. And we’re trying to secure a tour of the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, which I’m also really looking forward to.”