VT students

In 2010, Warm Hearth Village (WHV) started working with the Virginia Tech’s Industrial Design Department Senior Living Studio class to foster collaboration between seniors and students on products designed to improve and extend independent living. SFCS Architects Senior Living Design, a Roanoke-based architectural firm sponsors the project. This is just one of many examples of collaborations that fulfill the vision WHV’s founder Wybe Kroontje had for the Village residents and staff to work with the community. Loring Bixler, guest lecturer, resident and former IBM Industrial Designer is the liaison between Tech and the Village.

“As soon as I moved to Blacksburg, in 2013, I wanted to get involved with the industrial design program at Virginia Tech. I wanted to share my experience to help young designers understand what was expected of them out in the field. I met with Ed Dorsa, Chairman, of the program at the time. He suggested I volunteer to assist instructors. Dorsa started the Aging in Place program in 2010, with financial support from SFCS and participation from WHV residents. In the beginning, students met with residents in Showalter Center, the assisted living residence. But there were so many students, it was difficult for student/resident interaction. In 2015, students started working with residents in independent living, in a roundtable format. In 2017, the students started presenting their design solutions to the participating residents. We can continue to evolve. There is a wealth of experience in the village and I am so proud of the residents’ willingness to give their time to be involved and thankful for the support of the WHV Staff. The interaction of everyone involved is inspiring,” Bixler said.

Each fall, the current class meets with residents at WHV to learn what they need to make their lives easier. After the initial meeting, students go back to the classroom studio to design prototypes.  They bring their concepts and prototypes back to residents again for feedback and the collaboration concludes with students formally presenting their final designs at Warm Hearth Village.

This year students used resident input to create an easy-to-wear vest with GPS, a safer cutting board, cosmetics containers for easy application, a mobile kitchen island and storage space, a pouring assistant for heavy containers, a shopping cart with walker storage, a compact, touchscreen digital radio, an ergonomically-improved and easy-to-use wheelchair, a vision impairment magnifier, lighting device for the night-vision impaired, a gardening cart to carry tools and provide seating and a transfer seat for the bath.

Ella O’Connor, a junior, describes her team’s project, Loop, (shown) as a device to help people pour liquids from large, heavy containers. She said,  “Pouring is an outdated motion. The act of pouring is not enjoyable nor easy for everyone from young kids to aging populations. No successful solutions are on the market today, therefore people have ignored that it is indeed a problem; until Loop. Loop’s objective is to eliminate discouraging feelings, wrist pain and an expiration date on your daily movements. The opportunity to interview and meet with the wonderful residents at Warm Hearth provided inspiration and feedback that made Loop possible and we would like to extend our gratitude for that!”  

Leaders at Warm Hearth Village have expressed interest in growing the program further and hope to find more ways to foster student and resident engagement.  One idea would be to have a classroom studio on campus where students can engage and interact year-round rather than just a few days each semester. “We are so proud to be a partner in this program and we are excited about the future for the students and our residents,” says Ferne Moschella, Warm Hearth’s President and CEO.