It’s not every day an assignment in class turns into a career-launching opportunity.
But that’s exactly the kind of project Kailani Torres is just wrapping up—and her good work (and innovative design) will be appreciated by countless members of the community for years to come.
Torres, who is from Mililani, Hawaii, is now a senior in the Environmental + Interior Design program and is leading a major makeover of the main conference room at Sacred Hearts Academy. The project had her doing just about everything a professional does, from working with contractors to incorporating feedback into her design.
“It was very empowering to do this project,” Torres said. “Being able to work with and learn from professionals as well as building connections was so incredible. What better way to gain some exposure than while I’m still completing my degree? This gave me the confidence to know I’m on my way.”
The project was born when Sacred Hearts Academy reached out to Chaminade’s Environmental + Interior Design program to solicit proposals from students to redesign a key conference room on their Kaimuki campus. Students in Professor Junghwa Suh’s EID 271: Materiality in Interior Design class were invited to take up the project for class credit—and the chance to work on a real-world design.
Torres jumped at the opportunity to participate but tried not to get her hopes up.
“I thought it was just a wonderful opportunity to gain some experience with a real client,” she said, adding students visited the Sacred Hearts campus, “feel out the space,” and interview those who use the conference room. After putting everything together, she set to work on a design proposal that would not only reflect the school’s identity but be practical and flexible for conference room users.
Envisioning what she wanted and actually finishing her proposal turned out to be two different things.
Just as she started jumping into the design software required to craft her proposal, the pandemic started and lockdowns went into place. Virtual learning meant Torres had to troubleshoot more than she was used to. But she says the experience helped her build confidence in her skills.
At the end of the semester, it was go time: students in the class presented their conference room proposals to Sacred Heart’s board and leadership. Torres was nervous about her final product but knew she’d done her best. After that final presentation, she waited for news. And waited. And waited.
It was several months later that Torres received an email from her professor that her design had been selected. Her reaction: “Complete disbelief.” She added, “I read that email over and over again trying to make sure I had read it right. I even had moments of denial,” she said. Torres later got a follow-up message that Sacred Hearts was proceeding with the renovation and ready to work with her.
“Needless to say, excited was an understatement,” she said.
In the weeks that followed, Torres would find herself working directly with Sacred Hearts Academy President Scott Schroeder and the school’s leadership on changes to her design to meet new needs. She made a new presentation to the board in September 2021—and they loved it. From there, Torres was connected with the project’s contractor to make her conference room design a reality.
The rectangular space is about 1,500 square feet with 11-foot-high ceilings. Torres’ challenge was to make the conference room feel warm but not stifling, flexible without feeling temporary, and completely in line with Sacred Hearts’ character as a school and a community.
To make that happen, Torres’ design includes chairs at long tables that can be easily reconfigured.
Her favorite part of the design: acoustic ceiling wave tiles that not only serve a great function—preventing sound from echoing—but evoke a strong sense of place. She said her original design also incorporated a wave element in the carpet, but that was changed based on client feedback.
Torres is okay with that. After all, it’s her design but it’s the client’s space.
“Design is not just about how the space looks, it’s also the feeling of changing somebody’s life,” Torres said. “I am filled with an immense amount of gratitude knowing that professionals in the field see potential in me. Sacred Hearts Academy took a chance on a small-town girl with big dreams.”
Torres added she still gets chicken skin when she thinks about all the thousands of students and educators in the coming years who will use the conference room and get some joy from her design. “And who knows?” she said. “Maybe one of those students will be a daughter or a niece.”