Collaboration is at the heart of the School of Architecture + Design. In practice, projects are not completed by one profession. Instead, meaningful collaboration calls for a team that represents multiple specializations and experience levels working in concert to complete a task.

Sharone Tomer, Eiman Elgewely, and Elif Tural, assistant professors of architecture and interior design respectively, actively sought to begin the 2021 spring semester with a cross-disciplinary project to encourage collaboration as the foundation for their studio labs. For their students, this eye-opening experience enhanced their knowledge of design, problem-solving, and how to better communicate their ideas.

Tomer’s second-year architecture students and Elgewely and Tural’s third-year interior design students worked together to create a hypothetical, temporary living space with the Roanoke community in mind. While most of the students live and study in Blacksburg, the project presented the opportunity to build upon and apply their existing knowledge of Appalachia and the surrounding New River Valley to better design for their client in Roanoke, Virginia, 42 miles from Blacksburg’s campus.

The two-week-long project kicked off with a meeting with Lee Clark, the Chief Executive Officer of Rescue Mission of Roanoke. The organization provides emergency services, temporary shelter, and meals to individuals who are burdened by homelessness throughout the Roanoke Valley and adjoining communities. Students left the meeting with a deeper understanding that providing safe shelter for this community, while already challenging, had grown increasingly difficult during the pandemic. Students were inspired to collectively solve this real-world, complex problem through design.

Driven by multiple exchanges, the students worked to create living solutions for those burdened by homelessness. Immediately, the students began to learn from one another in the true spirit of collaboration. Interior Design student, Abby Harvey, remarked “from parts to the whole, each person had a role” and was inspired to push the boundaries of their design. Interior design students imparted their knowledge of materials, textures, and interior conditions to architecture students, while the architecture students shared their knowledge of the structure and building form.

We don’t think of design as being something that can absolutely help people who are experiencing the challenges of homelessness,” said Alexander Ismael, one of the student designers. “This experience opened my eyes to thinking about how you can design something and make sure you’re implementing human dignity, which was a huge thing that kept resonating through our projects and how you just make sure someone feels welcome coming into this new space we’re creating for them when they could have possibly just lost everything in their life.

At the conclusion of the two-week project, students produced designs for safe and socially-distanced sleeping pods that could be replicated, modular, and portable. The designs also kept the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act in mind and were ergonomically adjustable to suit those of various heights, body shapes, and physical needs. Additionally, the budding designers collaborated to design the pods using environmentally sustainable materials and sustainable sourcing.

With a long checklist to create a sleeping pod for those who need a safe and socially distanced space in a time when they are experiencing homelessness, the students’ sincere collaborative efforts produced design solutions for this critical and current issue.

The collaborative nature of the project spurred hope for additional cross-disciplinary design tasks. When Interior Design students Sarah Bannon and Paige Kinney, as well as Architecture student Matthew Lee, were asked if they would collaborate again, the answer was a quick and resounding “yes”.