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.

Female Pioneers in Higher Education

I want to expand here a bit on the work of Fatima Al-Fihri and her founding of The University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco in 859 CE. This was glanced over in a previous post about the structure of educational institutions and their history, but I do not feel it was given enough emphasis. For those of you who do not grasp the importance of this let me reiterate: THE FIRST EVER UNIVERSITY WAS FOUNDED BY A FEMALE. It is incredible to me how backwards we went as a society since that moment. It would be much more believable in my mind if the struggle for educational access after Al Quaraouiyine was a male struggle; if it took men more than a millennium to earn their right to equitable education in a female dominated domain.

Instead, our patriarchal society took hold of a female’s brainchild; and the men in charge managed to keep women out of the fold. It was not until 1840 that Catherine Brewer earned the first female bachelor’s degree in the United States from Wesleyan College in Georgia. At Virginia Tech, women did not enroll until 1921, nearly half a century after the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute was founded. In 1923, Mary Brumfield was the first woman to receive a degree. Even today when male and female enrollment and admission in colleges and universities are more equal than they have ever been, I have to ask myself- what would Fatima Al-Fihri have thought. Could we have skipped those 1160 years of educational inequity if we only acknowledged the genius of her gender from the very beginning of higher education’s existence.

A Decentralized Digital Future for Higher Education

Universities across the country and the world are still medieval institutions. Their roots in Universitas, a Latin term meaning the universe or the whole, was first used to refer to the student body at the University of Bologna in the 11th century. The oldest known academic institution, the University of Al Quaraouiyine, was founded in Fes, Morocco in 859 CE by a Muslim woman named Fatima Al-Fihri. Many of the earliest organizations of higher education had different ways of structuring their leadership, many of which were informed by current payment structures at the time. At University of Bologna, the students hired and paid the teachers, making the job very demanding and high stress. At other institutions such as the University of Paris (founded 1150) however, teachers ran the school and thus it became a hub for some of the brightest and most talented faculty around the world. Other models such as Oxford and Cambridge were state or crown run, so they met more middle ground but also had to deal with the slow hierarchy of government control.

In this day and age, institutions like Virginia Tech are also state-funded, but their governance structure has started to look more and more like a corporation. President Sands reports to a Board of Visitors appointed by the state of Virginia, similar to how CEOs report to a Board of Directors elected to represent shareholder interest in the corporate context. The hierarchy of management with vice presidents and provosts, deans and department heads looks a lot like a company with half of its operations geared toward education and the other half geared to running a successful business. Though students are included in governance structures like the Graduate Student Assembly and there are two student representatives on the Board of Visitors, the major power and decision making are more or less controlled by top executives and politicians in Richmond.

I foresee a future where technology can be leveraged to decentralize the governance structure of higher education, and make it possible for any engaged learner or educator to have an equal vote in dictating the direction of their institution. This future is based on blockchain. It is inspired by the emergence of Decentralized Autonomous Organization or DAOs, where companies can be run by digital participants from around the world through a series of smart contracts. This structure first necessitates a relatively radical departure from physical to digital educational spaces. Assuming zoom chatrooms begin to outnumber brick and mortar classrooms and the main assets of the university becomes cyber-physical rather than real estate based, this model would work quite well. Here is how it would work: Teachers and students all participate in the educational system as nodes in the network. There are pre-agreed upon rules that dictate compensation for teachers and grades for the students. The more students who take and do well in a class, the more a teacher gets compensated. All payments are still made through the state (at least at public universities like Virginia Tech), but the payment itself is automated and based on performance.

I am not saying there are no kinds to work out. Nor am I saying this is the only way for education to evolve. But I do believe that the confluence of educational digitization and digital decentralization, this future could be a reality for higher ed. It is us up to us as future academic leaders to make sure that the rules we automate in our smart contracts are fair for all people from all backgrounds and that they properly and realistically incentivize the type of learning outcomes that universities have now striven towards for millennia.