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Upcycling in Education: BCIT

Dixie Hudson, an interior design instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, is dedicated to teaching future designers all about the practice of upcycling. She accomplishes this goal with a hands-on approach, teaching students to upcycle by creating objects such as furniture, lighting fixtures and wreaths out of a variety of different waste materials. In this interview, we discuss projects of the past, present and future as well as why upcycling is becoming such an important practice in the field of design.



To begin, could you tell me a little bit about how you got the idea to do the upcycled class projects for the Materials and Environmental Factors course?


I got the idea due to a number of different reasons. Because I am teaching the Materials and Environmental Factors course it really made me more aware of what I was doing and what I wasn’t doing. With all our projects at BCIT, at that point we weren't recycling anything. We were doing everything on matte boards and throwing them away so I just started looking at things differently. Then I started thinking—if I’ve just been made aware of this now, I’ve got to make other people aware of it. So, how do I make the students aware? To begin, I changed the course a lot. It is much different now than it was when I first took it on. Instead of going over details of materials, recycled materials—because there is so much on the web now—I then thought that it is better to teach the bigger picture as to why we are doing this. If you inspire people to be more committed to that goal, or even passionate about it, then they understand and they want to carry it forward outside of the classroom. Thats the real goal. I don't want students to just practice upcycling in the class and then leave, I want them to carry these practices forward to the jobs they will work post-education. So then I thought that I actually need to do a project. Instead of just reading McDonough’s books on upcycling and Cradle-To-Cradle, we should be doing it ourselves. Thats when it all started. The first project involved lighting—designing a light fixture. It worked out so well and everyone got very involved in it. I remember one student’s project that was this gigantic 3 ft. ball that was made completely out of the plastic utensils from the cafeteria downstairs. They were all the used ones that had been thrown out. She went through the garbage and washed them all, glued them all up, and made this magnificent looking light fixture. There were so many good things that came out of that. The next year I focused the project on furniture, opened it up, and made the criteria broader. Then I realized that it was not just about the idea of upcycling, but it was also about the idea of how to combine different materials together. Thats what we do as designers—we design things and ask, “how do I attach this to that substrate? How do I connect things? How do we do these types of things?” It was then when the project became much bigger than just upcycling. Most of the people in the class get excited about seeing discarded items on the side of the road, at home and behind their apartment building. They suddenly realized that all these objects are things we can be reusing and repurposing. The motivation and knowledge grew naturally and seemed to be a good fit for the class. I decided to do the upcycled wreaths this year because I was trying to make this project more doable in a smaller period of time because of other assignments we were doing. I thought about the BCIT Christmas Faire and how we could use that to sell the wreaths for funding for the class trip, but how can we do wreaths that aren't just for Christmas? We needed something that could be displayed year-round. I decided to throw the wreath idea out there and see if I would get anything different this time around—or if I would just get a whole bunch of Christmas wreaths. The students ended up making tons of different things - which I was very happy about! So the assignment ended up involving design, creativity, reusing materials, upcycling and it turned out great. I love this project.



Have you ever experimented with these kind of projects on your own time, yourself?


I have, and I will tell you a funny story. When my kids were much younger—my oldest son was about nine—we were going up to Whistler quite often and they had a lot of furniture being made out of trees. I ended up buying a little side table, but I didn't really have anywhere to put it in my house so I ended up putting it in my son’s bedroom beside his bed and he thought it was kind of cool that it was made out of tree branches. So, we were up at Whistler driving home and I saw all these trees lying on the side of the road and told my husband to stop the car so we could grab some and I could make something out of them. So he pulled over and we grabbed a whole bunch of them, came home, and we ended up making a headboard over the weekend for my son’s room. Then I thought that I would do his whole room based on this look and I went out and bought new bedding and everything. Then we moved and had to renovate the new house. At that point, we were all of a sudden telling the kids “no, we don't have money for this. We don't have money for that. We are renovating right now.” We didn’t have any drapes up on my son’s window, so I decided to a wooden rod with little wooden brackets out of branches and everything to put these drapes up. Well, I did that. Then he came home and I said “go look, there is a surprise in your bedroom.” So he goes in, looks around and he says “Oh my gosh!  Are we too poor for a curtain rod?!” So I go “no, no! Thats very stylish! Do you know how much people pay for these things?! This is really trendy!” Then he says “I just can’t believe we are that poor that we have to use tree branches!” So I had to take it down and went out and bought a curtain rod for him. Anyway, thats always been there for me - to take on those kind of tasks. I am constantly trying to figure out different uses for materials. You look around you, find things and start thinking about how you can do this or do that, trim this or cut that. In most of the bathrooms I have done, I have used a cabinet for a bathroom vanity and put on various tops—then you have to cut out the drawers and do different things to get them to work. I guess that is just my type of design!


Too funny! Going back to the wreath and lighting fixture projects, what kind of other projects have you done with classes in the past?


You know, I almost doubled up on it for a couple of years where I would do furniture in the materials course, but then people would say “but you used to do light fixtures! Can’t we do that as well?” There simply wasn't time to put it all in, but everyone wanted to design light fixtures. Then I started putting a light fixture in the lighting course where the objective was to create an upcycled fixture that cost $10 or under. The students were allowed to make it out of anything they wanted. We had incredible light fixtures, but then the lighting course was made smaller, so I had to take that out. As neat as it was, we needed more technical information in the lighting classes. Now I’m thinking that when I do the materials project next year, it will probably be either furniture or lighting again—whichever one the students would like to do. 


Sounds fun! Looking at the last project with upcycled wreaths, were there any big surprises or memorable moments during the presentation time?


You know—one thing I was very surprised about was how attached everybody was to their wreaths. They seemed to have really cared for them. I see student projects all the time and usually its a presentation and the presentations can be good, but this time—and even the year before—when I did it on furniture and we were going to sell the projects, nobody wanted to sell their furniture. This time, several people said to me that they didn't want to sell this wreath. Afterwards, there were a couple of wreaths that didn't sell. The students came to pick them up and they were so happy they didn't sell - because they wanted them! That to me is really pleasing that everyone made something that they wanted for themselves because that was part of the parameters of the assignment: the wreaths had to have value afterwards. To me, that is the best value there is if you want it yourself. That was a nice surprise. 


Fantastic! So why is upcycling important to you and what would you hope for students to learn from the experience?


Upcycling is important to me because of William McDonough. He is one of my mentors. I think he is a very clever man that has been promoting the circular economy and zero waste for a long time. It is only very recently that what he has been speaking about is finally being taken into account by a lot of people—mainly municipalities and such. Now it is becoming a part of all sorts of communities. He is the person who got me started on it and I am very glad he did. To me, it adds a real entity to theory that is taught in the classroom. I think it is important to, not just talk about the theory, but actually act on it. 


I totally agree. Alright, one last question: Do you have any new and exciting upcycling projects planned for future classes?


This coming year—in my mind—I plan on going back to doing a larger project. I am going to adjust the course and do something bigger - most likely involving furniture. I have a meeting on Friday with other people who have a lot of wood waste. I am going to talk to them. What they want to do—what their suggestion is—is to make something that could be applicable to a small condo. They want to show developers that they could be putting these items into small condos and inspire others to try to see what they can do. I don't know the details yet because we still need to talk. To me it sounds a little large and people may have to do woodworking. Most people at home don't have that opportunity, so I’m not sure how it is going to work just yet. Now I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of making wood waste the required material. We will see. I’m not quite sure what we will do for the next year just yet. I was thinking of tying it into the design theory course as well. We are going to be taking a look at outdoor education spaces on campus, where we could be developing them, and I might add a component of upcycling to add to the outdoor education space. Something that we already find on campus that we could upcycle and incorporate into the outdoor education space would be perfect. I might get the topic of upcycling into two courses this year. 


Thats fantastic! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Dixie. That was a lot of fun.


My pleasure.

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