Well-being on Both Sides of Design

I never realized how hard it would be to live out the principals of my own design. I just finished my first semester of leading a large team of students in the Solar Decathlon Design Competition. The attached housing project we developed was brimming with biophilic features to improve the health and wellness of future occupants. Our phyto-remediative greenwall filters indoor air by forcing it through the roots and soil of each planter. Wood-wool fiber acoustic insulation inserted in between our dowell laminated timber (DLT) ceiling actively sequesters VOCs from the environment. The floor plans were designed intentionally to provide equitable access to daylight, natural ventilation, and outdoor space. Even tree placement in the landscape was optimized to cast shadows of leaves on the floors and walls of each apartment- creating opportunities for indoor forest bathing in what the Japanese call ‘komorebi’ - or the way in which sunlight shines through the leaves of a tree.

Interior Rendering of TreeHAUS, Virginia Tech’s entry in the Attached Housing division of the 2019 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge.

Interior Rendering of TreeHAUS, Virginia Tech’s entry in the Attached Housing division of the 2019 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge.

With so much concern for providing a stress-free environment for future tenants, many of us on the design team neglected our own personal health and wellness for several months. Seemingly endless stretches of all-nighters left us completely drained around all of the major submission deadlines. After submitting the final report at the last possible second, I literally collapsed onto the floor of my research lab partly in relief and joy but mosltly out of pure exhaustion. Fundraising to send our largest ever team to compete in the finals at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado was also wrought with stress. You can see in the video below how little sleep I had been getting throughout the whole project.

And so we created this beautiful, peaceful, mindful oasis in which graduate students and future faculty could live their most balanced lives, just as we neglected our own balance in the process. I have thought a lot about what contributed to this.

  1. The way we select teams neglects how well a candidate balances their work with other healthy habits: I selected my team leaders for their portfolios and their portrayed talent without ever asking them about work-life balance. In the end I ended up working with someone who exacerbated my own tendencies toward perfectionism. Though we excelled in the competition, there are many ways in which we could have been better to ourselves throughout the process.

  2. Ambition must be balanced with time management: It is okay to have high standards and lofty goals of success. In fact, I admire those qualities in myself and in others. The problem arises when big ambition meets poor time management skills. We needed to freeze the design of our building way earlier in the process. We needed to have harder internal deadlines that we really held ourselves to. Until a team develops a track record for good time management, it is impossible to be ambitious and mindful of your health at the same time.

Winning the competition is something I will never regret. All the hard work and the sleepless nights got us there. But we are all still learning. The real failure would not have been losing the competition, but rather neglecting to reflect on what could have been done better. In our case, we needed more balance and better time management. In the future I will seek teammates and leaders who bring these specific qualities to the table. Only in that way can we hope to breed well-being on both sides of Design.