Emily Pilloton is the founder of PROJECT H DESIGN, a nonprofit connecting youth to design build opportunities. A new film, IF YOU BUILD IT, chronicling the firm’s students, projects, and work, opens today in New York City.
When I was a young girl, I loved building stuff. From Legos to treehouses, sandcastles to sofa cushion forts, getting creative and getting dirty was the way I came to understand the world. When I discovered architecture—or more specifically, architectural education—everything clicked. The culture of the architecture studio, and studying the built environment from a creative perspective, gave me permission to try anything, to try it again and again, and to be a geek about everything: math, history, fine art, science, cultural anthropology, my own heritage, geography, and so much more.
When I founded Project H Design in 2008, everything clicked again. Just as building had been a game changer for me, it seemed also to be an equalizer, providing a new kind of learning methodology for public schools that were not nurturing the raw creative brilliance of their youth. The design/build process (creativity plus applied core subjects plus full-scale construction) teaches important life lessons: Everything can be better; we have all the tools to make it so; big, crazy, beautiful ideas are necessary; learning and readjusting after each step is a path to revolution.
This is why I became a middle- and high-school design/build educator, first in rural Bertie County, North Carolina, and now at REALM Charter School in Berkeley, California. Students of Project H’s programs, from a 10-year-old girl learning how to weld, to a 10th grader researching 19th-century urban planning theory, have the space to voice their most audacious ideas, then to go and acquire a wide array of tools to make them real.
The following is an excerpt from my TED book, Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education, which tells the story of my two students, Kerron and Erick from rural North Carolina, uncovering the power and possibility of their craziest ideas through this full-scale design and building process—the subject of a new documentary film about Studio H, If You Build It.
Studio H Billboard on the border of Bertie County, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Project H Design.
The idea of failure has taken root in many design thinking circles, the premise being that failure teaches us how to rapidly redirect toward a solution: One idea fails, and we try something else. In fact, failure is a misnomer. To fail would be to walk away from the problem entirely. What occurs within an iterative process is a series of manipulations, drafts, deliberate “poses,” strung together, inseparable, and codependent, toward the moment at which the final generation is ideally suited to the context of the problem. At that moment, we build, knowing that failure in the real world is not an option, nor has it ever been part of our process in the true sense of the word. We push and pull and tweak and erase and reorient so that we may produce the best version of our ideas. We do not fail; we commit to incremental and constant improvement.
Students working in the studio. Photo courtesy of Project H Design.
For Kerron and Erick, after dozens of cardboard and chipboard sketch models were strewn across their drafting tables, the final generation took the form of architectural origami. The model was built in chipboard, with precise slices and folds that transformed a single flat sheet into a three-dimensional faceted arch. They presented the scale model to us, being careful not to use the banned phrase “We’re done,” but saying instead, “This is what we want to build.”
Matt and I looked at each other, proud of the product that had resulted from their process—and, at the same time, entirely perplexed. We had the same thought: “This is awesome, but I have no idea how to build it full-scale.” The vision that came to life in chipboard might never hold up in wood and metal, buckling under its own weight. The only way we would find out, though, would be to return to the same process by which Kerron and Erick had built their model: Do it over and over until it works.
Chicken coop models in the studio. Photo courtesy of Project H Design.
Over the next few weeks, we bounced between woodshop and studio, trying to figure out the full-scale bending piece. The challenge was finding a configuration that matched the action of the model: a flat piece with built-in flex points, which, when bent into shape, would hold its form and remain structurally sound. It was an easy feat in chipboard, but the weight of more structural materials, and the simultaneous need for both flexibility and strength, proved a conundrum. Rounds and rounds of testing, editing, material swaps, and cutting in new geometries finally yielded a viable solution. The roof “ribbon” was constructed using two layers of plywood, cut into pairs of 30-60-90 triangles, between which strips of sheet metal were sandwiched to form flexible hinges between the triangular pieces. As a whole, the piece was rectangular, about 4 by 18 feet when laying flat.
It was this flat but flexing piece that lay before us on the concrete floor of our studio, drafting tables moved aside to accommodate the roof-raising. It would take the whole class to lift it, twist and turn it into shape, and secure it in place.
Students work together to build the Coopus Maximus chicken coop. Photo courtesy of Project H Design.
Circling around the soon-to-be coop, we bent and lifted in unison. It was a dance, a choreographed motion requiring total focus and communication. “Lift that, bend there, hold still,” we instructed, as students moved under, around, behind, and within the lifted roof. Across the room, on a table, the chipboard model was our reference. We eyed it carefully, our motions following its lead, the wood bending to its form. Forty-five minutes later, two-by-fours bracing the raised and bent coop roof in place, we stepped back, as if backing away from a pointillist painting to see the whole image.
Kerron leaned against a ladder, his eyes fixed on the structure. “It’s … amazing,” he said. His teammate, Erick, wiped sweat from his brow using the back of his work glove. “Man, I hope the chickens appreciate this.”
The students proudly display the Coopus Maximus. Photo courtesy of Project H Design.
The ChickTopia chicken coop in the studio. Photo courtesy of Project H Design.
The Chicken Circus coop. Photo courtesy of Project H Design.
We finished Coopus Maximus, as it was dubbed, with a MIG-welded steel frame, rubberized roof paint, and chicken-wire siding. Henrietta and Jezebel, our resident chickens, enjoyed their new abode until the coop eventually traveled to Portland, Oregon, to be featured in an exhibition of Studio H’s year-long work. It is now a backyard fixture for a family, home to a dozen hens. The class built two other coops, ChickTopia and Chicken Circus, which sit in the front yards of two family homes directly across from each other, a block from the school. Driving down the rural route into town, there is nothing for miles. Then, out of nowhere, spring two crazy sculptures, functioning as chicken coops, given to families, raised by the teenage designers who dreamed them up, far beyond what they ever imagined a henhouse could be.