A sleek, white, warm and windowed dome sits in the middle of a gray winterscape. Set against a barren backdrop, flowers, herbs and vegetables glow with light and welcome.
In another view, the same sleek white dome anchors a corner of a busy urban park – a playground of sorts for older adults. Amid skyscrapers and sidewalks, a protected garden blooms inside this modern greenhouse 365 days a year.
The award-winning ENRICH project is a collaborative effort by a team of five in Virginia Tech’s Industrial Design major: Natalie Tobias, Nick Poe, Margriet Klinckhamers, Josh Meador, and Veritas 2016 graduate Landon Mason. As one of eight finalists (of 97 submissions from 24 countries) for the prestigious Stanford Longevity of Design Challenge Award, the team will travel to California to present their project in mid-April.
In this Portrait of an Alum, Director of Communications Sara Kennedy sat down with Landon to learn about the project, his path to Industrial Design, the challenges of college life, and how he is experiencing the Lord’s faithfulness and leading in the years since he graduated from Veritas.
The ENRICH project was birthed from a simple prompt: how can design be leveraged to answer real challenges facing the elderly? More than any project to date, this one required more than gathering data on the internet, fundamental knowledge of design principles, and a strong foundation in art. It meant leaving the familiar studio for quiet days of observation, reflecting on the experiences of grandparents, and above all, asking meaningful questions of those most impacted by the creeping constraints of old age.
Landon and his team began by interviewing residents at Warm Hearth, a retirement community near Virginia Tech’s sprawling campus of 30,000 students. One of the first things the student team realized is that the presence or even proximity of others does not itself combat the loneliness felt by many residents. Though their campuses are within a mile of each other, students rarely interact with Warm Hearth residents. With family and friends busy or distant, the pain of social isolation, even more than physical challenges, was the repeated lament.
With this in mind, the team narrowed their focus to designs that foster our shared and very human need for companionship. Remembered stories from grandparents’ love of gardening, combined with intentional observation at Blacksburg’s farmers’ market led the team to consider an updated, and low barrier version of a community garden – a shared greenhouse that would be open rain or shine, all four seasons, and suitable to any environment.
Throughout the design process, Landon repeatedly checked in with the residents at Warm Hearth. He didn’t want to miss the opportunity to course-correct; with humility, he submitted his ideas to the wisdom of those the project was intended to serve. In the process, the men and women of Warm Hearth generously shared their hard-won knowledge, hopes and fears, and the young VT team considered how technology might be leveraged on behalf of a human-to-human venue for connection over shared loves.
ENRICH emerged from these listening sessions. For Landon, this experience confirmed his passion for great design stewarded for the good of others. Each aesthetically beautiful greenhouse is built around a center worktable, generous drawers hold shared tools, and gardening plots are waist high for the comfort and accessibility of each gardener. Technology built into the basins under each plot alerts community members if more water or light is needed, creating shared successes and shared fruit (literally and figuratively) from the endeavor.
While most of his Industrial Design work is subjectively graded by professors, the assignment forced Landon to consider how “success” can and should be measured in his field. In fact, this experience has been so formative that Landon doesn’t want to do another projected isolated from the end-user, even when more than enough hard data is available. As the recent recipient of a competitive design internship at Target’s headquarters in Minneapolis, Landon will have a chance to test out this conviction this summer.
Since graduation, testing his convictions has been a regular theme for Landon. As so many freshmen find, options at a school of 30,000, far away from home, can be overwhelming. He quickly linked arms with believers through church and CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ); weekly worship, large group with CRU and small church Bible studies have provided a home away from home – a way to recover a little of the intimacy he found in friendships and teacher relationships at Veritas. Landon is also part of one VT’s smallest departments – his Industrial Design class has only 29 students. These 29 will pass through all four years together and are his mission field.
Spending hundreds of hours together, in the well designed, but subterranean Architectural School studio, this group of students is family. And like family, they see the best and worst in each other. As one of three Christians in his class, Landon is keenly aware that his life is under the proverbial microscope – will he be kind even at 11:30 at night, will he be faithful to Scripture in difficult conversations, will he consider the needs of others before his own?
With a deep awareness of all that was poured into his life – from parents, church, and years at Veritas – Landon wants nothing more than to be found faithful in offering back the love and grace he’s been given. Perhaps sooner than he realized would be required, he is finding that the tables have already turned. Yes, he is still a beneficiary of the investment of others – but he also has faith and hope and love to offer his fellow students. This substantial life of the mind and spirit is urgently needed. The days of receiving-only are well past.
When prompted, Landon offered this counsel to high school students at Veritas: Be intentional. Not just about your grades (though this is important), but about the habits you are forming now. Realize that you aren’t a kid anymore; seek ways to give back. Find joy in the little things at school, and celebrate everybody’s big things. Try not to take for granted going to school with teachers who know you, who are for you, who would drop everything to have a meaningful conversation with you. Yes, you have alot to look forward to in college, but you are also having a remarkable life experience right now. Don’t miss it.
As Landon and his team travel to Stanford to present the ENRICH project in mid-April, our prayers and best wishes go with them. Just as the community greenhouse design offers light and life and connection wherever it is placed, we pray that each of our graduates will contribute the same to colleges and communities far beyond our campus.
Photo: Veritas graduates Jason, Landon, Seth & Stephen