Pictured from left to right: Leanna Jackson-Gilmer , Collin Wolf (holding our RDF cat), Christine Smith, Ojima Glover, Connor Ennist, Hosanna He, Andy Stepka, Alex Van Noy, Theresa Moriarty and Hanxi Yang

July 11, 2019


The summer of 2019 brought a new contingent of 12 students who were selected to work on experimental living lab projects under the direction of Enric Ruiz-Geli, a renowned architect and new professor of practice under the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. This initiative aims to get more students involved with Virginia Tech’s projects, both on and off campus. Each student is assigned to one or two projects which are part of the following: the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) Media Building; the Richmond project of designing an interior office space in their new Richmond office for their School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) program; the Creativity and Innovation District (CID) Faculty Apartment; the Corporate Research Center (CRC) Pavilion; and the renovation of the Research and Development Facility (RDF). The students share their experiences working together to help design and implement new initiatives. 



Theresa Moriarty, Andy Stepka, and Alex Van Noy are heading up the renovation of the ICAT Media Building. They are renovating the hallway by designing, molding and installing 800 ceramic tiles to create a cohesive archway. Andy Stepka, a recent graduate from Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies, says these unique handcrafted titles highlight the area by  “activating it and make [sic] it a space so that when the studio’s move in there, that they can showcase their work.” In addition to the molding of the ceramics, Alex Van Noy, a fourth-year Industrial Design major, is working on the computer modeling dimensions. Alex has enjoyed being a part of this project because it has given him the opportunity to gain more skills in working with new and creative software, giving him a “leg up” when he enters the job market. All three project assistants are excited to see their project come to life over the following weeks. For Theresa Moriarty, it’s a special opportunity: “Being able to see the projects that you’ve done, even if it’s just small-scale, is very exciting. I think that is what the living lab is really about, finding a project, working on it, struggling with it, and finally seeing it come to fruition.”



Ojima Glover, LeAnna Jackson-Gilmer and Hanxi Yang are focused on the Richmond project, renovating the interior space of a building for faculty in their SPIA program to give them a space to do their work. Ojima Glover, a fifth-year architecture student, appreciates getting to experience the client-architect interaction. It’s more than just the design; it includes all steps of the process. Furthermore, as Ojima explained, it showcases the challenge of creating a cohesive space. One wants to make everybody happy, but you still have to abide within code,” she says. 





The students are also working on the CID Living Lab concept, which is focused on designing an apartment for resident faculty. This project is headed up by Connor Ennist and Alex Van Noy. Both students spoke about the processes and roles in the creative design process. Connor has been creating numerous two-dimensional images showing the architectural design. Alex has been going in and doing wide shots of the area. Cat Piper, a fourth-year architecture student, has been an active part in all of the projects. As the media specialist, she takes site pictures, attends meetings, and collects information to assist in creating presentations for each of the projects.







Christine Smith, Hosanna He, Collin Wolf and Edie Bartman are helping to convey their design concept on the CRC pavilion project, using interlocking wood panels to create a canopy on the outdoor space. Collin Wolf and Hosanna He, both second-year graduate students in the M.Arch II program, are excited to see the project progress. For Collin, it’s about, “transitioning the design idea into something real; dealing with all of the small details that go into creating the larger project.” Hosanna, sees that it’s not always so simple:  it is exciting to get to see theoretical architecture into reality, but also a bit overwhelming if we miss a small detail that we did not consider.” Christine, a rising fifth-year architecture student, feels that the hands-on nature of the project is a hugely important component. “It’s been a great learning experience for all of us with the help from Enrique and Luis. We’re always used to designing in studio, but never really building something which has been an enriching part of our education at the RDF.”  Working through the setbacks and give and takes was tough for Christine, but she says she appreciates getting a real life experience. It means in the future she will have had the experience of working with tight deadlines and delays, while being fully equipped to handle them.



In addition to the main projects, several of the students are also involved in the process of helping to  renovate the space in the RDF. Connor explained that the students are the focal point of the space renovation, adding more storage, with the goal of making it the primary maker space. The students agreed that as things progress, the project reveals its rewards, and every week is something to look forward to. 


Overall, it is the hope that these projects are an incentive for future funding and growth of living lab projects and will influence the integration of more students from multiple disciplines into these innovative projects. When asked if they were able to give advice to other students seeking similar opportunities, the key recommendation was this: start networking now. It’s also important to apply for a position even if you don’t feel qualified. “You don’t have to walk into a position with any one skill, a lot of us are learning as we go which I think makes us better workers, because we’re constantly interested and motivated,” says Connor. 




The skills these students have gained from working in this lab have prepared them to be innovative, flexible and well-rounded individuals. Therefore, regardless of these students’ future ambitions, whether that be graduate and law schools; bigger cities; going back home; or, out to start their own business in flipping houses, they will accomplish great things. 

With that being said, if you are an undergraduate or recent graduate interested in gaining valuable experience, this lab is actively looking to recruit more students to join their team. If interested, please send your resume and reason for applying with subject line “Living Lab Position” to Ingrid Skenderian at singrid1@vt.edu.  


– Written by Zoe Waddell


Photographs by Cat Piper