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Students in Aging in Place Studio present award-winning results

Students presented their Fall 2016 studio work to a professional audience at the By Design conference, hosted by Roanoke architectural office SFCS, a firm that specializes in housing for the elderly.

The Senior Living Studio, sponsored by SFCS and Autodesk sought fresh solutions to challenges of aging and was led by industrial design and architecture faculty Nathan King, Brook Kennedy, and Bill Green.

Student Lane Herring demonstrates Uppo, a walker promoting a more upright posture.

“The research-intensive semester challenged students to embrace messy contemporary problems in this space and to utilize design thinking to identify new opportunities for design to solve the pressing problems of an increasing aging population in the United States,” said Kennedy, who has offered the studio for four years.

With close guidance from retired IBM designer and guest instructor Loring Bixler, the students conducted user-centered research during engagement with a local retirement community, which helped to understand real issues faced by real people—a perspective of growing importance in the academic environment.

The course represents the first-of-its-kind transdisciplinary studio focusing on issues relating to design and health.

“The practice of design, including architecture, industrial design, interior design, etc., must constantly evolve to identify and improve the quality of human life by addressing dynamic global issues like health and aging,” said King. “This evolution requires an increasingly multidisciplinary approach. This is the state of practice our students will enter and, therefore, we have re-envisioned the pedagogical approach by offering an increasing number of hybrid studios that bring together students from multiple disciplines.”

“By addressing such a critical and temporally relevant subject like aging in place from a number of perspectives, we didn’t just enable students to reinvent existing products, but we also identified new design opportunities to improve the experience of aging, which can be emotional and difficult process for the whole family,” said Kennedy.

Several of the concepts displayed have already won awards. Students Austin Ledzian and Mark Meardon’s Polaris responsive lighting system, which helps prevents falls by lighting a path, won an honorable mention at the International Housewares Competition in Chicago.

Uppo, a walker that promotes a more upright posture, is a finalist at the global Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge, being held at Stanford University. The Uppo team, Emma Lee, Gerrold Walker, Lane Herring, Genesis Solano, and Charlene Lertlumprasert, are heading to California to compete in the Stanford in to compete.

Other teams are awaiting responses from a range of national competitions.

Aging and Health is a growing theme nationally and has considerable investment in the region both in Blacksburg and at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute. Roanoke and surrounding areas have become a hotbed for retirees.

“We believe there are a lot of opportunities through cross-disciplinary collaboration for Virginia Tech to engage regional organizations in areas of public health, and in this case, aging,” King said. “We hope to expand these efforts alongside our related international initiatives to provide opportunities for students to emerge as high-impact leaders in areas of design and health.”