In one month’s time last fall, West Virginia University student Samantha Millard-McEvoy lost her father unexpectedly and watched from across the country as her hometown was ravaged by a wildfire. Although it was a trying time in her life, the senior interior design major found inspiration in the parts of homes and businesses able to withstand the blaze – and turned it into an award-winning conceptual design.

Her project, “Rebuilding Community,” was recently recognized as one of three regional winners of the Interior Design Educators Council Student Design Competition.

“Samantha’s achievement extends a record of outstanding achievements by our interior design students within regional and national juried design venues,” said Ron Dulaney, associate professor of interior design in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “Individual awards such as this are not only a great testament to the quality of students within our program but also to the committed and effective teaching by our faculty.”

Student competitors were charged with identifying a particular community and important challenges associated with it, and then designing a university-affiliated, community design center that would help address those challenges.

Millard-McEvoy saw many challenges – and plenty of hope – in a small community about two hours north of San Francisco.

In September 2015, a wildfire swept through Middletown, California. It was the largest California wildfire in 12 years, and the third largest in the state’s history.

“A lot of my friends lost their homes and the town seriously looked like the apocalypse, everything scorched black and destroyed,” she said.

That October, Millard-McEvoy lost her 39-year-old father unexpectedly.

“I had to get a last minute flight back to California,” she said. “I ended up staying there for about a month while the funeral plans were put together, and I actually started the IDEC project from home on the same day as the rest of the class despite my professor offering to give me a later start date.”

Feeling restless from dealing with a myriad of emotions, Millard-McEvoy threw herself into the project.

“It really inspired me to fall in love with design again on a whole new level,” she said. “I was driving around looking at the remains of all these houses and all you see is bent steel scattered around concrete foundations with brick chimneys still standing proudly in the center of what was very recently someone’s home.

While it’s heartbreaking to see, the remnants of a structure fire can also be seen with hope in that they managed to survive. There is hope in planning to rebuild and start over, and that’s what people who have lost everything need to know.”

That hope was the guiding force behind her designs.

Utilizing durable materials such as concrete, brick and steel, the “Rebuilding Community” center combines a vertical studio with service learning to directly interact with and improve the surrounding community.

Additionally, the center would feature faculty-led design teams that would work with community members to incorporate as much of the remnants of the fire into the new designs; however, when not possible, materials would be recycled or used to create one-of-a-kind art pieces.

“I wanted those who have lost their homes or businesses to look at all the possibilities that lie within rebuilding rather than focusing on the upset that comes with the loss,” she explained. “As I was creating this conceptual space, my world was crashing down one piece at a time and I found the hope within to start rebuilding myself back up. I hope others will find inspiration in the design as well.”

As for her own rebuilding efforts, creating such a personal design and having it win a regional award has helped boost her confidence.

“I feel a lot more confident in my skills and ready to go out into the work force now,” she said.

Pursuing an interior design degree also helped her connect with her dad.

“He worked construction and it was one of the only things we ever really had to talk about,” she said. “I remember the shock on his face when I came home from school talking about foundations and jack studs and he realized I wasn’t just a decorator. I think if he could see what I’ve done with this opportunity he would be incredibly proud, and that alone means the world to me.”



CONTACT: Lindsay Willey, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design

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