Honors College

Sustainable Design for Service

ID major Andrea Murchie ('16) unleashes a torrent of creative possibilities for sustainable design

Andrea Murchie

SUMMARY: Honors student Andrea Murchie applies her skills in industrial design to solving problems in the developing world.

The future of the movement to produce appropriate and practical designs to meet the critical needs of communities in Africa and elsewhere is quite literally in honors student Andrea Murchie’s hands.

It’s called Sustainable Design and Andrea is interested in making her degree count by enriching a community of designers and donors united by the goal of sustainably meeting the basic needs of the world’s least fortunate citizens.

“I’m all about human-centered design,” she says. “I realized that I could use my design skills – to discover, ideate, and prototype – to combat problems in developing countries. I found the problem I’m currently working on for my senior project while doing my honors study abroad in South Africa.”

Sustainable design is a philosophy for designing objects, buildings, and infrastructure that meets present needs without compromising the future of society or the environment. “What makes Industrial Designers different from engineers and other problem-solvers is that we understand what the results are supposed to look like in a holistic way. We understand products as a whole – meaning how it should be designed, manufactured, distributed – as well as how people might interact with the products we produce. We’ll also try and anticipate any alternative uses for our products.”

Andrea first studied abroad in Ghana with JMU History professor David Owusu-Ansah. “That was the moment when I realized that I wanted to somehow bring a humanitarian purpose to my education in design.” Then, in her sophomore year, she enrolled in an intensive Honors Study Abroad course with JMU professors Teresa Harris and Brian Augustine. The course, which spanned a semester and three weeks in the summer, was entitled Separateness in a Connected World: A Glimpse into Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Andrea was drawn to the destination for very personal reasons: her family is originally from South Africa. Andrea’s mother immigrated to the United States thirty-five years ago during the apartheid regime in South Africa. All of her extended family members still live in South Africa.

“While I was in South Africa we went to the province of KwaZulu-Natal,” Andrea remembers. “We volunteered at a hospital for children. I noticed that a lot of the kids there were burn victims. It was winter, and winters can be very dry. The children were getting burned by fires for cooking and scalding hot water. I learned that there were other problems with open fires as well, like smoke inhalation and the fact that renewable energy sources are not being used.”

She credits a hike in the Drakkensberg Mountains with another revelation. “This wasn’t a touristy part of our trip at all. We stayed in huts with electricity from a shared power grid. The three days that we were there happened to be the three days of the week they didn’t have power. As a result, we didn’t have lights or hot water in our huts. On the other hand there were the stars. There were so many stars. I’ve never seen so many in my life. They were beautiful.”

“We hiked for hours one day, hoping to get to the Lesotho border. But every time we thought we’d gotten to the top there was still much further to go. We’d gotten to a really high point, what we thought was ‘the top,’ and rather improbably I managed to get a call through to my mom. In winter everything is an amber-brown color. It’s very much like a high, dry desert. Only where mountain ridges cast near-constant shade is there anything green. There was an enormous escarpment below us and then just infinity. In a way we were relating on a very personal level with the nature these people encountered every day. Imagine living here, and walking through these vast, remote terrains fetching water and trying to care for your family.”

Upon her return to Harrisonburg, she began carefully reflecting on her experiences in rural South Africa. She learned that there are actually a lot of design projects that are intended to curb household smoke inhalation. She researched new cook stoves, innovative ways to boil or heat water, and solar cookers for food. She also studied all the designs that people use to pasteurize water.

“In rural areas the water can be coming from all sorts of places – from stagnant puddles or ponds, from flowing rivers, from boreholes – but it’s not necessarily clean water. It can be very unsanitary. Standing water in particular can be full of sediment and microorganisms,” Andrea observes. “Filtration can get rid of big particles, and pasteurization kills the microbes. Boiling the water is a good thing to do, but the generic method of boiling the water – over an open fire – proves dangerous for children.”

While she was considering the problem, Andrea began consulting on an engineering capstone project that involved using a 3D-printer Concrete Printer, a piece of additive manufacturing equipment that utilizes computer systems to repeatedly lay down layers of liquid material. “I thought the technology was really cool.” After her experience with this project, Andrea decided that the technology would provide a possible means of manufacturing her product.

Andrea had no idea what Industrial Design was before she came to JMU. “I was taking a foundational class – Art – 3-D Design. We were making sculptures of functional objects. We did contour drawings and then made wire sculptures based on the drawings. I made a pair of hedge clippers, but unlike everyone else, I made it functional so that my handles could be squeezed to make the blades go back and forth. Professor Banks saw my project and said I should be an ID major. And I said, ‘What’s that?’”

At the time of her conversation with Professor Diane Banks there was no Industrial Design major, but rather a concentration within Studio Art. One year later, there are about 35 students in the ID degree program, led by Dr. Audrey Barnes who teaches her students to “seek out inspiration in unexpected places” and “collaborate with diverse partners and not fear failure.” Andrea remembers fighting for the degree. “We advocated for this with our friends and family, and we went to all of the Board of Visitors meetings. We were going to the Industrial Design Society of America Southern District Conferences and we weren’t even a major yet. Other schools took note of our tenacity and our numbers. We spoke up a lot and participated a lot. We’re really passionate about Industrial Design, passionate enough to fight for it as a major.”

Andrea credits her parents with fueling her ambitions. Her mother is an artist and teacher at an alternative school for troubled kids. “I definitely got my passion for the arts from her,” she says. Her father is a planetary scientist in the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. “Industrial Design is the perfect combination of technical skills and aesthetics. We understand how things work and what’s possible given the science of materials.” Her parents, she says, have helped her understand that when you design things, virtually anything is possible.

Fortunately, JMU’s Design Building on Grace Street – part of the School of Art, Design and Art History – has the tools to turn those design dreams into reality. The building possesses a full wood shop with everything from an industrial table saw to a band saw to a planer and a jointer. It has modern CNC machine tools, laser cutters, and multiple 3D printers. It has a full concrete lab and a thermoformer for molding and shaping plastics. All of these pieces of equipment are available to help students with the prototyping process.

Andrea went to work. “What I’m making is a hollow, spherical water vessel made out of concrete. The idea is that it can sit out under the hot African sun and pasteurize the water. The concrete gets hot and begins radiating heat into the liquid inside. I figured that the vessel needs to hold about 2.25 gallons of water. This is enough drinking water for an average-size African family of five, based on the daily recommended intake of water.”

Casting a hollow sphere out of concrete is exceptionally hard. Andrea first had to cast a half inch plaster mold around a ten inch Styrofoam ball. The layer of plaster, once sanded down, stands in for the finished concrete. After the plaster dries, Andrea carefully covers the surface with wax and cooking spray, which works as a perfect release agent. “I needed the Pam so the plaster didn’t stick. Throughout the whole process I’ve learned so much about mold making. It takes a lot of time and it’s easy to encounter problems. At the same time, I’ve learned things that will really be useful to me in life, such as patience. I jumped into this project without any specific knowledge of the materials I’d be working with. This is not uncommon for an Industrial Designer. On many projects we may have little knowledge about a current issue or product design we are working on, and will then have to learn and discover new things in order to improve our understanding. We are always trying to think more creatively about the design issues or product designs.”

At first, Andrea was working at a smaller scale where she could 3D print the molds. But when it was time to create full-scale molds, 3D printing wasn’t practical anymore. “Now I’m finally at the point where I can do a successful pour. I’ve learned a lot about the material and about the process. Each pour I’ve done teaches me something new about concrete. The very first vessel I made in the mold taught me that air bubbles can cause imperfections. They get captured in the concrete. Then I discovered that finding the perfect mix of concrete was very important. I learned what happens when you add too much or too little water. The ratios of the ingredients really matters.”

Andrea also struggled to keep her Styrofoam ball steady in the center of the mold during each pour. “This last time I poured half the mold and then strapped it down and let it cure to keep the ball in place. And then I poured the second half. I even have a special tool that helps me move the concrete around and keep air bubbles out of the pour.” Her project advisor, Architectural Design Professor Evelyn Tickle, has been instrumental to her progress. “She’s really helped me so much! She has given me a lot of guidance and pushed me to achieve. She encouraged me to apply for a College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) research grant for this project. I was awarded $3,000. She taught me to make mistakes and learn from them. Evelyn has really helped me get to where I am today with this project.”

Andrea describes each pour as like running a short marathon. Everything involves moving fast, not making a misstep, having patience, and visualizing a positive outcome. “There’s innovation that comes from each pour,” she says. “I’ve gone through six versions of the vessel so far. It started out as a plain sphere. Later I added African patterns to the surface for aesthetic reasons. Another version has a lip to make it easier to pour the water. The latest vessel has a sort of scalloped exterior to make it easier to grip your hands on.”

“I’m just about ready to test my prototype. I have heat lamps and a thermometer and a laser that tells you what temperature you’ve achieved. I purchased a WAPI, a water pasteurization indicator. I also have a thermo-coupler that helps me test the temperatures in different parts of the vessel.”

Andrea’s hope is that once she knows her functional prototype works it could be relocated to a school or community in Africa where people make these vessels in partnership with a non-governmental agency. She is more interested in creating jobs for people locally than in doing generic product design at an industrial scale. “I really like to design for humanitarian purposes,” she says. “I want to be designing something that makes a real difference in a person’s life. I enjoy designing for environmental reasons as well because it’s something very relevant that everyone needs to be designing for right now.”

Andrea has done some environmental projects in the past, including a coral reef restoration project. “Why is coral bleaching happening? What is coral and how does it have a symbiotic relationship with other living things? What are the effects of climate change? How does that phenomenon affect the whole ecosystem?” Industrial Designers, she asserts, can pick out a particular piece of that complex puzzle and work on a solution. She’s already created a system design for a dive platform with cooling agents and reflectors that reduce UV rays and help divers observe ocean temperatures as they are diving. “It’s intended as an awareness-building, consciousness-raising activity. I have the concept design done but now I need to develop the technical workings of the platform agents and cooling agents. For our projects in our Industrial Design classes we tend to work solo, but in this case I want to collaborate with an engineer and marine biologist. I love working on teams because the problems we face are so complex and no one person can be an expert in everything.” This summer, Andrea is going to Útila, an island off the coast of Honduras, to get her dive master certificate. She wants to know more about environmental design and ocean conservancy.

Until then, Andrea is going to continue imagining that anything is possible. Optimism, she says, is where innovation actually comes from. “I plan to go to grad school,” she says. “I’m considering an advanced degree in Sustainable Development, in Environmental Science or Industrial Design. But I want to get some life experience first. What I want to do is very cross-disciplinary and there are many people who are doing it and coming from lots of different fields.” This semester she joined the Society of Entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship, Andrea claims, is something that more people need to be exposed to earlier in their careers, in addition to networking and collaboration skills.

“I love making things. It’s the mindset of helping people who are in need that motivates me. I want to help the natural world.”

Back to Top

Published: Monday, April 25, 2016

Last Updated: Friday, February 19, 2021

Related Articles