In 2010, designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller of the nonprofit design and architecture agency Project H Design moved to the poorest county in North Carolina. Their objective was to set up Studio H, an innovative shop class engineered to help teach rural high school kids how to rebuild their withering community, and their own sense of possibility, through design.
Pilloton and Miller lived on credit and grant funding while teaching the students how to engineer, prototype, and build everything from a chicken coop to the 2,000-square-foot Windsor Super Market, a covered farmer’s market intended to help jump-start the local economy and foster a sense of community.
If You Build It, which opens Friday, Jan. 10, at the IFC Center in New York City, is a new documentary that chronicles the ups and downs of the yearlong building project, which culminated in the opening of the market in 2011. Directed by Patrick Creadon (Wordplay, I.O.U.S.A.), the movie is a heartening story about the power of design to galvanize young people in a school where physical education classes are taught online and kids can’t wait to grow up and get out of town. And it’s an equally disheartening tale of the narrow-minded adults at the local school board who withdrew financial support for the program after the departure of the superintendent who had initiated it. That economic reality forced Pilloton and Miller to leave Bertie County in 2012.
"The school district just doesn't believe in spending money on that kind of hands-on education," Pilloton said in a phone interview. Pilloton still keeps in touch with her students from Bertie County, some of whom have gone on to college and have told her they plan to return to the area and re-invest in the community after graduating. "There's nothing of the program left there," she said, "but I have complete faith that the kids who were in the program will make future investments in the community that will pay off."
Pilloton now heads Studio H at its new base at the Realm Charter School in Berkeley, Calif., where students have built additional classroom space from shipping containers and handmade, laser-cut skateboards. (Miller is currently the lead design/build instructor at (co)studio, a public high school design-build program based in Carbondale, Colo.)
Pilloton said that if she lacked support in Bertie, the opposite has been true in Berkeley, where there has been growing demand for Studio H and she now has more than 200 students. She said that the public charter school includes a range of students from varying economic, cultural, and social backgrounds; 55 percent are still learning English. But she said that there are universal lessons that apply to all students of design.
“Our classroom is an inclusive space that gives them permission to fail,” she said. “If you’re in math class and you get a 35 percent, you fail. In our class we ask you to build another model. In design, there is no wrong answer. I don’t want to sound cheesy but being a designer is about looking at the world and not just asking yourself ‘How can I make this better?’ It’s about saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to make it better.’ There’s no way to fail if you dive in and work and think about things that you haven’t thought about before.”
Pilloton said she hopes this kind of hands-on design-based education will catch on elsewhere. “The idea of scale is exciting because I certainly think as an approach this could work anywhere,” she said. But she said that she loves the intimacy of working in the classroom with her students and can’t envision managing a franchise of Studio H programs around the country. Instead, she has assembled an online toolbox of lesson plans, activities, project briefs, and resources to help share the core ideas of the program with others.