As with most industrial design student projects in the School of Architecture + Design in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech, Bequest began as an answer to a perplexing human question.

Undergraduate industrial design students Hafsa Malik Rhanime, Hohsuan (HH) Hsueh, Michael Watanabe, and graduate architecture student Dhawal Jain wanted to know how they could help the nation’s aging residents who increasingly live in social isolation.

In the Senior Living Studio led by industrial design faculty Brook Kennedy, Bill Green, and architecture faculty Nathan King, and retired industrial designer Loring Bixler, the four students found an answer that’s earned global awards and recognition as a viable solution.  

Bequest is an internet-based service that connects young people interested in travel, service, and apprenticeship with elderly people craving companionship and support. After filling out an online questionnaire, applicants are matched based on factors such as location preference, common interests and skills, and personality traits – much like a service-oriented Airbnb or for intergenerational roommates.

“Our goal is to make a dent in social isolation among seniors,” the team states in its website prototype. “Bequest can change ‘aging in place’ – using technology and the age of social media to bridge the gap between the lonely elder and the curious, young traveler by creating beautiful mentor relationships.”

“Traveler-apprentices” move in with “host-mentors,” trading assistance with daily tasks and companionship for benefits like affordable lodging, professional guidance, and a knowledgeable host in a new city. Their invention imparts new meaning to the word “bequest” – allowing senior citizens and younger generations to share a legacy of service, kindness, and talent with one another.

The team’s concept won two awards last year at CORE 77 – one of the world’s most prestigious design competitions – including the Student Notable Interaction Award and the Community Choice Prize.

In November, team member Rhanime and associate professor Kennedy were invited to travel and represent the team at Dubai Design Week, an annual forum that showcases 100 of the most innovative university designs under one roof for an audience of global designers and financial backers.

“Sharing Bequest with people and seeing how excited they were about our work was inspiring and rewarding,” Rhanime said. “It was an honor to represent Virginia Tech for the first time at Dubai Design Week.”

Rhanime, an Afghan-American, says the team’s commitment to the project grew from their own diverse cultural perspectives.

“In my culture, the elderly live with their families, so the problem of loneliness and isolation among elders was disturbingly foreign to me,” she said. “Our group all agreed that we wanted to focus on ways to solve that.”

“I come from Mumbai, India, and senior living is completely different there,” added Jain, a master’s student in architecture. “There is a very strong multigenerational culture of families living together and enjoying close relationships. This project pointed out the stark cultural differences between our countries and how these diversities could become a great driving force in approaching design. It also gave me a deeper understanding of issues related to aging in America and a more sensitive eye toward how I could use design to improve them.”

After weeks of researching the problem – including in-depth study and discussion with residents and professionals at Warm Hearth Village, a nearby senior living community – they decided the solution lay in technology. The team developed a simple online platform and tested it with users of all ages to ensure it was intuitive for digital natives as well as less tech-savvy users.

They also took it a step further – designing modular “living pods” that could be easily and affordably set up on the property of Bequest hosts, thereby allowing independent on-site living for guests.

The Senior Living Studio is one of many ways Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies partners with industry and community to solve real-world problems. The studio is sponsored by SFCS Architects, which specializes in senior living, higher education, and civic/public spaces. Warm Hearth Village also plays a critical role in the students’ research and learning.

Virginia Tech’s industrial design program is nationally recognized as a leader in developing design talent. Students and faculty consistently win international awards for product innovation and commitment to using design as a tool for social and environmental good.

The program’s acclaim grew this week, as a team of industrial design students from the fall Senior Living Studio took first place at the Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge for “Ride Rite,” an interactive handlebar design that makes biking safer and more accessible for the elderly. This is the highest honor a team has won since placing in the competition three years in a row. The winning team includes Eric Bottelson, from Schaumburg, Illinois; Josh Francis, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Eric Lord, from Jupiter, Florida; Maya Pines, from Atlanta, Georgia; and Drew Sigler, from Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Kennedy, who co-teaches the Senior Living Studio, earned multiple international awards and national patents for his work on bio-inspired design ranging from Macronaut, a smartphone lens used to capture magnified images, and Corlayer, a more durable clamshell-inspired 3-D printing process, to “Fog Harp,” which harvests water from a net.

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