By now you've probably heard of If You Build It and you might have already seen the documentary. Since debuting in 2013, the feature-length film about design education has become a staple of the film festival circuit, bringing publicity to the design-build curriculum of Studio H co-founded by Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller. AAO spoke with Miller about his experience teaching ten teenagers in rural North Carolina while being filmed. When you cut 200 hours of footage down to 82 minutes, some parts of the story don't make the cut. Hear his thoughts on what was left out as the film chronicles an early stage of his design education career, and how he's currently working to transform high school shop class into a home for design education.
AAO: Tell us how this film came to be – was it an opportunity that came to you or something you sought out?
Matthew Miller (MM): Neil Baer, a former producer of Law & Order: SVU saw Emily’s TED talk, which was pretty much 100% based on Bertie, even though we hadn’t done anything there yet. She was telling the story about how we had just moved into this community and were about to run this design program and go as deeply as we could with design education at a community level. Neil saw that TED talk and then got in touch with Patrick Creadon (Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A.), a young director with some really good films under his belt. Neil put us all together and said he wanted to try to make a film about Project H, a film about design thinking and the design process. That’s where it was born. We were like “Sure, why not, let’s have it documented!”
So, the film was not at all intentional on our part, and, if anything, the filming was a bit of an annoyance to us at first. Here we were trying to run this brand new design program and really figure this stuff out on the ground on a day-to-day basis, and we now had this documentary crew running about. For starters, we had to be on camera a lot, so we had to watch our mouths, and we had to repeat things often and slow down for the camera, plus there were all these on-the-side interviews. And meanwhile, we we’re trying to actually get a building built, with all that work that has to happen on the side to make that go forward. I’ve got 10 years of architecture experience and I have to say it’s just totally unreasonable to expect kids who have come through a program for six months to be completing construction documents and specs and working with a structural engineer and filing permits, so we did all that stuff in addition to preparing three hours of classroom instruction every day. With layering on a film crew and all the personal interviews, it really did add to the overall stress level.
But, I think it also made us adopt the mindset that we could not fail. We couldn’t fail the kids, yes, but now we had this whole film crew here with a big eye looking down on us and documenting us, so we really had no choice but to pull it off. That felt like a very real additional motivator.
AAO: How long in the making was this project in Bertie?
MM: That was actually kind of quick. Bertie’s school superintendent at the time, Chip Zullinger, had found us on Inhabitat. We had been doing these “learning landscape” playgrounds in Uganda and elsewhere and it had gotten some press on the design blogs. Chip saw it. We were a little bit taken aback because what school superintendent in rural America is looking at design blogs all day? That in and of itself was kind of phenomenal, so we were like, “This guy is kind of special, let’s see what’s going on here.”
The movie really helps. It's huge. It's a great way to say, "Here's what I do, here's the impact I can have on students, and I would love your support and your collaboration"... It's the easiest calling card that I have.- Matthew Miller, (co)studio
We got in touch and flew out to Bertie in Febrary 2010 and we wound up making four playgrounds pro bono and that sparked some more conversations with Chip. The playgrounds led to a couple classrooms we designed, but we had started to become critical of ourselves, asking why we were flying in and out from San Francisco to build all these things and wondering why we didn’t just get on the ground in Bertie and do this stuff for real. The way to really do it would be to get in front of Chip’s students and teach them some design skills so they could do it for themselves. From that point, it all happened within one year: we had the go ahead from the school district and we were moving down to go live in Bertie. So it was quick. We winged it for a while with a roughed out curriculum and a series of projects that we wanted to run; we just sort of made it work. I had a fair amount of teaching experience at the collegiate level in architecture, but neither Emily nor I had ever taught at the high-school level.
AAO: People who watch the film will find their own favorite characters. Can you tell us where some of them are now?
MM: I get emails once a week from the market association in Bertie about what produce is being sold or what special events are in the works, so far as I know, the building itself is being used and the local market is pretty strong. Although, frankly I think we built a structure that’s way too big for what they really need. They don’t use every square foot, but the structure is certainly being used and that’s a good thing.
Emily and I have since split up. She’ll still teaching and has kept the Project H name and IP. She’s teaching Studio H with two other colleagues in Berkeley.
I’m out on my own in Colorado at this point. I’ve started a new project called (co)studio, so I’m literally starting the same process seen in the film all over again, thinking it through from the ground up and trying to make it work.
Chip Zullinger is in Houston right now as an assistant superintendent for the city’s school district.
And we are in touch with several of the students. One of them, Stevie, who is really the poster child for this program, is doing really well. He’s a farm boy who did not like school. His dad didn’t graduate from high school, and his grandfather didn’t graduate. Actually, Stevie was the first male in his immediate family to graduate from high school and he says it would not have happened if it weren’t for our program. He was going to drop out – he was right there ready to go – and now he’s on the dean’s list at North Carolina State in an agricultural science program. He’s talking about two more years and getting a full degree. He’s doing so well. Our program gave him the confidence he needed, but it also just really gave him the outlet he needed; it help him see that school doesn’t have to be sitting in front of a computer or typing English essays or solving math problems just for the sake of it.
There are two other kids from the film who are now at North Carolina State and one at East Carolina who is now a firefighter. Another one in the group joined the Marines, so they are definitely out there in the world, all grown up and doing stuff.
AAO: What have been some of the responses to the film?
MM: Well, the film has now been screened in about a dozen plus film festivals. It’s opened in six cities or so. (Editor’s note: as of our February 19 interview.) At the film’s premiere in North Carolina, at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, we packed a 1,200-seat theater which was really phenomenal. The response was really over the top, but it was a local-ish crowd (not Bertie, but just a few hours away). Eight of the students were on hand for the opening. And we’ve seen an incredible response from the design field, but also from the education field. I’ve had a lot of teachers say to me, “Damn, this is exactly what we need more of. This is good shit. This is what needs to happen!” So that’s encouraging.
My goal in going in to Bertie County was not to go in and just design for them, but to really teach their kids about the design process and do something for the community with their high school students. That, in a way, transcends a lot of this social design movement stuff... and hopefully [it's] the next phase of what that movement can be.
But it’s also been a bit weird because nobody is ever critical of the actual design program itself. The program is just treated as this glowing thing that the press glosses right over. I look at some of my classroom management in the early going and it’s just horrible! Honestly, I would love to have a little more criticism because it’s one of the only chances we’re really going to have to reflect on what we’re doing. We get so caught up in the day-to-day teaching and it gets hard to assess if this stuff is working in the grand scheme or where this is going in terms of high school education in our country. And those are some of the important conversations I want to have. The New York Times sort of railed on the film, on the making of the film, but it added almost no commentary on [the teachers] or the program.
There were lots of energetic responses from parents, too, who really want their kids to go through our program. The parents always want to know how to scale this thing, and I have to say that exactly what you see in the film is not scalable at all – it's way too resource intensive.
AAO: So tell us what’s next for you? Does Carbondale know what’s coming their way?
MM: There’s a group in Carbondale called Houses for Higher Education. They got in touch with me a few years ago and were trying to do something similar to Project H. They run an after-school program that’s hands-on with architects and builders coming in and working with kids. Last year they had four students and they built a few sheds. So when I was looking for some place to go [after Bertie], I got back in touch with them and asked if they had some room for collaboration. I’m now working with them and it’s going really well.
A woodshop position opened up in Glenwood Springs, so we sort of managed to get in to the public school district through the back door and have me start teaching this design class before the district really knew much about it. The principal knew what was going on, though, and he wanted to see woodshop continue but didn’t want his students making cheeseboards and candlestick holders for mom for Christmas – he thought woodshop could be something bigger. He hired me, we rewrote the curriculum putting design at the center, and then the district found out about it. They’ve really been very much on board with it all.
We’re already building some things with the students in Glenwood – a concession stand for the local high school, which is one of six classes I’m now leading. We’re making chicken coops, public furniture, lots of stuff getting underway. There’s not much out in the world yet, but a lot will be coming on line soon.
AAO: How do you see your work fitting into the standard K-12 curriculum?
MM: I’m trying to push my program into the STEM classes in my school district because I really think that’s where it could have more of a foothold in terms of its legitimacy. I think if it is viewed as a “shop class,” yes, people sort of inherently get it. But they don’t understand the cerebral aspects, the exercising of the mind and not just the training of the hand – all that critical, creative thinking stuff. We can make the argument that it fits within a STEM curriculum, that we are the “A” in the STEAM curriculum, we’re the piece that’s missing. When I started this job I came in and wrote all my own standards. Colorado schools operate on a standards-based system, and there was just nothing out there, nothing the State had written that fit my design class. So I wrote it myself. And it is hard to have to fit your work it into a box, but that’s what the system is requiring of me and so that’s what I’m trying to do now to have design make sense at the State level.
AAO: You’ve spoken a bit about the conceptual processes but what of the actual built products?
You need both. I do think much of the challenge is that we just need to build more stuff and put it out there. At that point, not only will the students buy in a little more, but so will the public. Still, my students get crazy frustrated with me at times because I keep forcing them through this iterative design process and not just sitting down and saying “design me a concession stand.” We play in the abstract for so long before we ever get to actual form making and any talk about function. So much of the outcome is about creating beautiful things these kids can be proud of, and that’s not just putting together a functional concession stand. That, in my opinion, would be your daddy’s woodshop class.
The houses they used to build back in Bertie, they were nothing spectacular. It was just the function of a house. It was about learning how to do wiring or brick laying so you could do that for the rest of your life. But our class in Bertie was about creating something beautiful that those kids could really take ownership of and take their parents and their families to go see, and hopefully their children to see in 10 or 15 years and say, “I built this and I’m really proud of it.” And it is a beautiful little piece of architecture, and that really resonates with them. That sort of stuff is really hard to explain until you have the work out there, until people see what can come out of the design process.
And I have to say the movie really helps. It’s huge. It’s a great way to say, “Here’s what I do, here’s the impact I can have on students, and I would love your support and your collaboration.” I’m getting a lot of people who want to volunteer now – architects, contractors, structural engineers – who want to come into our classrooms and spend a few days giving their time and helping support our projects, and a lot of that comes from the movie. It’s the easiest calling card that I have.
Do you identify with the public interest design movement?
MM: I’ve been working in that realm for 10 years now. I started out with Architecture for Humanity back in 2005 in Bozeman, Montana, volunteering for them, and then again in San Francisco, and I went to Uganda as a design fellow, as well. The Bertie design class was something I’d been talking about doing do for a long time, an evolution of all that public interest work, and, in some ways, a criticism of all that work, as well. Studio H and (co)studio are a sort of critique of Rural Studio and Architecture Humanity, all these things we’ve been part of and have looked up to. Even my own work in Detroit, building a house for someone on the model of the Rural Studio, working off that sense of “if you build it, they will come,” if you do these charity-based things and build someone a piece of beautiful architecture for the sake of beautiful architecture, they are going to experience it, accept it, and appreciate it. And that doesn’t just really happen. My goal in going into Bertie County – this poor, rural Southern, mostly African-American place – was not to go in and just design for them, but to really teach their kids about the design process, and do something for the community with their high school students. When I now walk away from that project, those ten high school students are still a part of that community and always will be part of that community. Bertie is home to them, and they’ve done something now in their hometown, for their hometown. That, in a way, transcends a lot of this social design movement stuff we’ve all been doing, and it’s not the “helicoptering in” model. So, I see our design education class as part of that movement, and hopefully the next phase of what that movement can be.