Project H Design
Self, pro-bono for Bertie County School District, Town of WIndsor
Studio H is a design/build public high school curriculum based in rural Bertie County, North Carolina. Over the course of one year, students apply core subject learning and design methodologies to research, prototype, refine, and build one contextually responsive and socially transformative piece of architecture for local community benefit.
Project H Design Emily Pilloton: Executive Director, Studio H instructor Matthew Miller: Project Manager, Studio H instructor Studio H high school students from the Bertie County School District
Through Studio H’s focus on combining “shop class with creative problem solving and design thinking” to the service of built projects for community benefit, we were struck by how the design engagement with this high school could expand the higher education options and possibilities for students. The process of information gathering, analysis prioritization, consensus building that it takes to build a neighborhood chicken coop are the same skills required for higher education.
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
We set out with lofty goals: to use design and hands-on building to tackle the challenges of an underperforming and resource-poor education system in a low-income, rural, and racially divided community. We saw a huge opportunity to “benevolently infiltrate” the public high school in Bertie County, North Carolina, a place we had come to call home. We had observed a huge lack of ambition amongst students, a lack of qualified teachers with the adequate tools to engage their pupils, and all of this happening within a struggling “deep Southern” small town in urgent need of economic stimuli and social coherence. The two-pronged problem was a community withering away because of a poor education system and a lack of shared resources or vision.
At the same time, we thought back to our days spent in high school shop class: a birdhouse for your mom, a cutting board for your grandmother, and recognized that there was a fundamental problem inherent to most vocational education. Most shop classes or technical education do not teach you how to think through a problem, but merely how to use a set of tools in a defined way. Additionally, vocational education at a high school level is, particularly in low-income districts, considered to be a track for non-college-goers. We sought to combine shop class with creative problem solving and design thinking, and to put those cognitive and hands-on skills towards visible, built projects for community benefit.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
Personally, we bring optimism, energy, and the stubbornness to make the project work despite multiple hurdles, economic, and cultural limitations. Our approach has always been one of intense local investment (we build innovative infrastructure, not just architecture), honest citizenship (we live here too, and want Bertie County to thrive), and the growth of creative capital from the community’s youth (we believe our students are the greatest asset this county has: the next mayors, town councilmen, small business owners, etc).
Aside from merely educating a dozen students in our first year, giving them high school and transferable college credit over 2 semesters and a summer build phase, Studio H has become a beacon of visible progress within Bertie County, producing tangible projects for all to rally around, and forging partnerships that would not exist otherwise. It is this idea of using youth and education as an untapped resource for community development that gives Studio H added value.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
The interests of our students and their families are our top priority. As a public high school program, Studio H fits into their school day, and meets three hours per day, every day, for an entire school year. It also requires students to participate in the summer build phase, constructing the architectural project they have designed for the community during the school year. Because of this large amount of time spent in our program, we are first and foremost accountable to their needs as academic students and as young adults. We offer college credits as well as paid salaries for the summer, and work with our students individually to craft personalized pathways to success. Many of our students come from unhealthy family environments, or have circumstances that make their academics even more challenging, so it is particularly important that we remain aware of their needs.
The interests of the Bertie County School District and Board of Education are also always considered, as this program must exist within the existing curriculum, and be part of the overall trajectory of the district. This has been our biggest struggle.
Last but certainly not least are the interests of Bertie County’s citizens, the Town of Windsor, and other local entities who make our built projects possible. For example, this summer we are building a farmers market pavilion with our students in the Town of Windsor. This project must consider the interests of the Town, the farmers, the buyers, local businesses, and more.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
In order to write the Studio H curriculum and seek approval from the local school board, we worked closely with the former superintendent to ensure alignment with all state and local standards. Research included an examination of existing design/build programs: notably, we drew much inspiration from Auburn University’s Rural Studio, but with a critical eye, asking how we might run a similar program at a high school level, and from within a community, rather than having to “import” talent from outside. We compared pedagogies from design-based charter schools and identified specifically a need for full-scale execution, that design as a process was not enough, but rather must be a path to create something real and for broad benefit.
Having worked in Bertie County for 18 months prior to Studio H’s inception, we knew many of our students and their families, and were able to gather valuable insights from them. We worked specifically with students who we knew were interested in enrolling to identify their needs for college credit, summer salaries, and more. We also worked in partnership with Pitt Community College to offer college credit and to align those credits with the high school standards.
Within the classroom/shop/studio, our process with students is non-linear, fun, wonderfully messy, and always productive. Our three projects this year (Cornhole boards, public chicken coops, and the farmers market pavilion) each integrated elements of ethnographic research, material understandings, structures, iteration, and final execution. Specifically, our students spend most of their time going through iterative process, producing 50 or 60 sketch models, or prototyping a hinge 10 times in the wood and metal shop. Basic skills learned (woodworking, welding, drafting, sketching, graphic design, rendering) are called upon for each specific project when appropriate and ideal based on the proposed solution, rather than the skills dictating the project.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
Studio H is in many ways the “little engine that could” of Bertie County. It offers social value not through talk, but by production, with few resources, and tons of heart. Our students are wholly responsible for three amazing chicken coops now in use by families as a sustainable food source, and the design of the soon-to-be-built 2,000-square foot public farmers market in Windsor. Educationally, Studio H has social value because it provides proof that a new paradigm, a new type of classroom, and a new type of instruction is not only possible, but hugely powerful. For the community, Studio H has value because it turns youth into the biggest untapped resource for its survival. Particularly in a poor, rural, underestimated place like Bertie County, Studio H gives citizens an opportunity to physically build a new future from the inside out.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
Studio H could greatly benefit from an improved business strategy, wherein our ability to build each year is not dependent on grants. Each year, we are bound by the amount of money raised through grant-writing or individual donors, which makes our ability to sustain a certain scale of building tough. While this is something we would have done differently from the outset, it is not irreparable, and we are currently working towards a more sustainable financial model.