Alumni Profile: Nicki Adler, M.D.E. ’19
Creating occupiable roofs to improve city life
When was the last time you went up on your roof? Is it just the structure that keeps out rain and occasionally needs an expensive repair? How often do you think about it at all?
Nicki Adler thinks a lot about roofs. Adler, a 2019 graduate of the Master of Design Engineering program run jointly by the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Harvard University Graduate School of Design, founded Top-Yard in February 2020, turning roofs into beautiful, occupiable spaces capable of supporting everything from a garden to a garden party.
Adler has long been fascinated with how social, engineering and design systems come together in cities. She got to explore that interplay while getting her MDE at Harvard, and now as the founder of Top-Yard.
“I’ve always been interested in understanding what the trends are of how we want to live, and how we will live,” Adler said. “You have to think about logistics. You have to think about materials. You have to think about policy, regulation, customer experience, all these different kinds of things.”
Adler came to the MDE program after spending four years as an analyst at Microsoft. Her work involved competitive development tracking and innovation projects such as connected car technology, but during this time she also participated in a program called Remote Year, where her interest in cities really developed.
“I was traveling for a year all around the world and became really interested in applying that creative technology lens from Microsoft to the lens of city life, and improving livability, mobility and sustainability,” Adler said. “A lot of sustainability is thinking about the entire life cycle of something, and having a holistic view of how a product or a service will shift behaviors and the systems it touches."
A need to interface more directly with end-users eventually led Adler to leave Microsoft in 2017. She considered pursuing graduate degrees in both business and urban planning, but none of the programs she looked at in those fields fit well. Harvard’s MDE program offered a mix of broad education in systemic challenge areas such as health or waste systems, as well as the hands-on technical training that she wanted.
“It was a mix of feeling like I would get some hard skills, get some real practice in an educational but applied setting, move out of research and PowerPoint land and into prototyping and working with really smart, cross-disciplinary people,” Adler said. “It was tied to the design school, which is very urban-focused and very built-environment-focused. Very experiential, but it had this entrepreneurial, product-based perspective, so it felt like this combination of product design and how we experience daily life. There was a focus on sustainability and health, and those are the topics of great interest to me.”
Adler would go on to design a wide range of products and services during her time at Harvard, from a more environmentally conscious way to distribute and access liquid household products and detergents for large residential buildings, to a wearable hydrogel sensor to monitor sweat levels for hydration and a suite of information.
She also crafted policy and street redesign recommendations for a theoretical roll-out of autonomous vehicles in Boston.
“The throughline with everything I’ve done is really digging into the prospective users' needs and being the connector, liaison, person who can understand something over here and translate it to someone over there,” she said. “What does something mean to the user? What does that mean all the way back to manufacturing and raw materials?”
So far, Adler has completed one pilot occupiable roof, while another is going through permitting. She’s also done numerous consultations for potential future projects, but wants to make sure she fully understands the challenges of roof redesign before expanding.
“There’s so much that goes into the decision to do this, and the framing of that is very different, obviously, for an owner-occupier vs. someone who’s trying to increase rent,” she said. “An easy service to get a beautiful, usable roof space is definitely something that people want. The issue is the other barriers that we have to deal with, which include access to the roof, conditions and idiosyncrasies of the buildings, red tape code that makes you have a certain staircase, and fire codes.”
Adler loves building things and companies, and seeks to apply design thinking methods to all aspects of product delivery - from raw materials to end user experience.
Getting her MDE at Harvard helped her integrate all those methods into a business.
“What I got out of the program that was so applicable to this was working in a really cross-disciplinary way,” she said. “To do what I’m doing, you have to work with architects, contractors, engineers, regulators... They all have different personalities and technical skill sets. To work amongst them, collaborate, motivate, speak the language, it was really helpful to have the background of the MDE program.”
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