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If You Build It: The Power of Design to Change the World


Emily Pilloton, Founder and Executive Director, Project H Design


Project H Design was created out of a sense of frustration.  Emily began as an architect and after 3 years, was “totally over it.”  She was designing doorknobs and lighting fixtures and found it extremely dull.  It was disconnected from what the things that made her fall in love with architecture in the first place:  getting dirty and solving interesting projects with other people.  Project H is in it’s 8th year.  MacGyver was Emily’s first crush, not just because he’s cute, but because he solves problems in unconventional ways.  Her two grandmothers were very strong and creative women (and librarians!), who invested a lot into their professional practices.

Experience More Important Than Content

We have a responsibility to create learning experiences for our young people that are meaningful.

My partner and I were invited to a failing school district to use design “by any means” to help it succeed.  The results of this was Studio H, a class that takes place during the school day for which students earn credit.  Students create something that is architectural that has a public benefit.  The first project was to build a farmer’s market, which in Windsor, North Carolina was a revolutionary idea.  Now, a big part of architecture is to sell your idea to stakeholders.  This brought people together that would normally not speak with each other…a big win.


  • $50,000 construction budget
  • Construction crew of teenagers
  • Hurricane zone
  • Flood zone


Construction began on the first day of summer.  When everyone else was going out on Jet Skis, my students showed up every day in extreme heat and humidity.  Labor law in South Carolina says that children under 17 cannot operate power machinery on a construction site.  As a result, we had only one student who could operate the chop saw.

RESULT:  this project created 4 new businesses and 17 full-time positions!

STUDENT QUOTE:  “I want to come back here with my kids someday and tell them that I built this”

Seeking is More Important Than Knowing

A constant state of inquiry is important to moving forward.  Our next project was done in Berkeley, California…pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum from our first project.  Students here come from pretty much everywhere and span the range of experience.  These children wanted to build a library as their class gift back to their school.

The students wanted their library to be a space for discovery, not reference.  How to build a library that is meaningful to all 108 students in the 8th grade?  We use building blocks built by a CNC Router to build modular shelving, tables, etc.  While the project feels unfinished and uncomfortable to Emily, because it doesn’t feel finished.  However, it’s exactly what the students wanted.

Student quote to Emily about her unease:  “In algebra, X is the unknown.  The X-Space is where we go tot discover the things we don’t know.”

We is Greater Than I

I’m super-introverted and don’t like to work with other people.  However, I know that collaboration is important to creativity.  I’ve found that collaboration is less about democracy and more about trust.  The next project we worked on was to build two “tiny homes.”

I had my students build about 100 different models.  We did precedent studies that made students think through all the different reasons why they should include different design elements into a project, like space, lighting, flow through, etc.

We purchased trailers and reinforced them.  The day that we raised the walls was my favorite day.  25 teenagers had to work together to get it set up and squared together.  The students really wanted to use pallets, which I can tell you was NOT easy to work with.  The homes turned out beautiful!  One was auctioned, and one was given to a an organization that supports the homeless.

STUDENT QUOTE:  “I gave someone a place to live.  Oh, and I got an A in this class and know how to build a house.”

Curiosity is More Important Than Passion

Passion is big, often difficult to quantify, and hard to access for some.  Curiosity, on the other hand, is incremental, approachable and generates more creativity.

  • Learn to use a set of tools
  • How do you use this to express your own ideas
  • How do you use this to apply yourself to build something bigger with other people

STUDENT QUOTE:  “I’m a 10 year old girl and I know how to weld.  What can’t I do?”

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