BLACKSBURG — One of the most challenging classes for 37 students in Virginia Tech’s industrial design program kicked off with a gripe session at Warm Hearth retirement village.
The elderly residents, organized by fellow Warm Hearth resident and Tech design instructor Loring Bixler, sounded off about the physical difficulties and annoyances they face daily.
The students urged them on.
“What do you need to get around better and be more self-sufficient? What isn’t working for you?” they queried 32 independent living residents of the Blacksburg retirement community.
Residents shared a litany of predicaments. A man told of losing his grip on his wife’s wheelchair on an incline. A woman lamented having to give up shopping because she couldn’t handle her walker while pushing a grocery cart. Some couldn’t see the controls on their kitchen appliances; others kept forgetting to wear their medical alert devices.
Each fall for the past six years, Virginia Tech juniors in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies have interviewed Warm Hearth residents for ideas and input on projects aimed at increasing the seniors’ independence. Student teams then create prototype items, ask for feedback, and present their final products to the residents at Warm Hearth.
“These students do a lot of background research as well as an audit of devices already out there,” said professor Vincent Haley, who co-teaches the Senior Living Studio course with professor Bill Green and Bixler. “One group generated perspectives of a room and used filters to make it look the way it would to someone with macular degeneration or glaucoma. Another visited a Warm Hearth resident to examine his wheelchair collection.”
The teams recently showed their array of helpful devices to the seniors who instigated their projects. Gadgets included a secured cutting board for folks with only one good hand, a seated garden cart, a transfer seat for bathing, room lighting for the visually impaired, a lighted magnifying glass and a shopping cart equipped with a walker carrier.
Team members Cedric Mohlmann, Nicholas Prete and Kai Mulligan bought a used wheelchair at the thrift shop to analyze and use as the basis of their safer, more comfortable prototype. They sat in it, wheeled it around and looked at its components.
“In 30 minutes, we came up with dozens of possible improvements,” Mohlmann said. “It would be too expensive to produce if we did everything, but we did make it more ergonomic for both the helper and the user. It has lumbar support and movable arm rests. And we moved the handles so the person pushing would have a more secure grip.”
When Bradley Turner and his group learned that 60% of the active seniors at Warm Hearth like to walk, they developed a vest with easy magnetic fasteners instead of a zipper. The vest also sports an embedded GPS and medic alert as well as a secure inner pocket for a cell phone.
“Some seniors don’t wear their medic alert when they go out. My grandma has said she won’t do it,” Turner said. “Our jacket has the device embedded under an emblem. It doesn’t look like the usual alert. We’re working on a peg coat rack with wireless recharging for the vest’s batteries.”
For the vest project, Turner and his teammates learned to use a sewing machine for the first time. Other students worked with table saws, joiners, braces and drills. The vast underground studio space in Burchard Hall, where the students work, is ringed with workshops for wood, metal, ceramics and sewing, as well as a room full of 3-D printers.
Bixler, 84, makes his way through controlled chaos, seeking out his students among others working at the nearly 200 desks in the open studio. Warm Hearth Marketing Director Tambra Dixon noted that students light up when they see him approaching. For six years Bixler has been a volunteer instructor; the only compensation the retired IBM industrial designer receives is free parking in Tech’s commuter lot.
“It’s so important to bring designers together with the people they’re trying to understand and serve,” he said.
Bixler’s contribution of service is a bargain for the university. With 24 patents under his belt, Bixler knows industrial design. His 22 years as an adjunct instructor at Binghamton University in upstate New York are also a plus.
Students appear to take the octogenarian’s comments and sketches very seriously – after all, Bixler is both a senior and a designer.
Bixler is proud that the young designers in the Senior Living Studio have garnered numerous awards in the past several years. Uppo, a walker that allows a more upright posture, was a finalist in the global Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge.
Last year another Tech group won the Stanford award for their handlebar-mounted device to help the elderly bicycle more afely.
Other students earned top industry awards from International Design Excellence Awards, Cradle to Cradle and the International Housewares Association, and have been invited to present their work at the Cooper Hewitt Lab Showcase on Accessibility and Inclusion.
Warm Hearth is interested in providing more support to the student design program, perhaps providing a learning lab on campus, according to Dixon.
“This is one of our most popular, most successful college partnerships,” she said.
The Senor Living Studio at Virginia Tech has been sponsored for the past decade by SFCS Architects, a Roanoke-based national design firm specializing in senior living, higher education and civic/public sectors.