Out of Context: Jim Hoefler

jim hoefler, dickinson magazine, winter 2015

Photo by Carl Socolow '77

Policy professor invents dwelling-space solution for mobile generation

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

He must have spun a wondrous scene, perched on the front steps of his childhood home in Sherburne, N.Y., with his first invention—a jerry-rigged bubble-machine, made from an electric fan, a record player, an old LP with holes drilled in it and a slosh of soapy water—sending cascades of iridescence into the air, delighting passersby. Some 40 years later, Jim Hoefler is still community minded, as both a political science professor and a volunteer, and still quite the showman—though these days, he channels that verve into his lectures.

And he’s never stopped tinkering, gifting loved ones with handmade puzzle boxes and carving out a secret cubbyhole in his home—accessible, Scooby-Doo-style, by a revolving bookcase—for a daughter who loved to squirrel away with a book. Now, those workshop labors are paying off, as this end-of-life-policy expert rolls out an award-winning invention aimed at an agile and time-pressed generation.

With the help of just one Allen wrench, Hoefler’s XoomRooms are lightweight, fire-code-friendly and attractive temporary-wall systems that are easily installed and dismantled, leaving no telltale dents or scuffs in their wake. Reusable and quickly assembled by children and adults alike, they create multiple possibilities for living-space, business and trade-show experimentation. They are, as an international panel of judges noted, ideal for dynamic spaces and fast-moving lives.

Inspiration struck in 2012, as Hoefler helped his daughters move in to a first apartment in Washington, D.C. Their rent was steep, and they planned to sublet a section of their living room. After constructing a sturdy-yet-adjustable temporary wall for them, Hoefler realized that there were many others who could benefit from DIY enclosed spaces. He got to work.

In his basement workshop, Hoefler tested many special-order materials and designs, intent on pinpointing a mass-marketable product, keeping the price point low for young people who were just starting out. He also prioritized sustainability, insisting on durable supporting elements and hardware that could be reused as clients moved from one home to the next.

“None of these [objectives] were difficult in themselves, but it was tough to meet them all at once,” Hoefler says with a laugh. “It took a lot of trial-and-error—I would think that I finally had it right, and test it. Then I’d start again the next morning, from scratch.”

Two years later, Hoefler’s XoomRooms are ready to unveil. They feature adjustable anchor poles and lightweight panels for quick setup in a variety of straight and angled configurations, for rooms with a range of ceiling heights. They also can be laid flat for storage when not in use.

Hoefler submitted his invention to the 2014 International A’ Design Competition, which draws approximately 12,000 entries from professional designers in 100-plus countries. With a score in the top four percent, XoomRooms garnered a coveted Silver Award. Now, after minor tweaking and several prototypes—one was installed by the two elementary-school-age children of a former student, Becca Raley ’94—Hoefler is ready for the mass market, and he’s permitting his senior-seminar students a sneak peek behind the scenes.

Mike Adams ’15, a double major in policy management and international business & management (IB&M), and policy-management major Casey Colburn ’15 learned about Hoefler’s ventures while chatting informally with the professor after class. “It seemed really exciting, so I just said, ‘Hey, I could use a wall!’ ” Colburn recalls.

She explained that she shares a double room with neuroscience major Carla Vazquez-Ramos ’15, and there’s an open doorway—once framing French doors—between their living areas. The roommates had planned to hang a privacy curtain in the doorjamb but wondered if a XoomRoom unit might do the trick. So one day in October, Hoefler stopped by their senior-housing unit, components in tow. Adams, who is interested in learning about startups, and is conducting in-depth XoomRoom market research as part of an independent-study course, came along.

Four minutes and 37 seconds later, the first official XoomRoom installation was complete. And that weekend, Colburn did not wake up when Vazquez arose for an early-Sunday-morning swim meet.

“I’m not a do-it-yourselfer kind of guy, but this installation was so easy!” says Adams, noting that the unit took just two minutes to uninstall, and about four minutes to put back up. “And it’s not heavy at all. I can see someone like my mom putting one in.”

Read more from the winter 2015 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

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Published January 20, 2015