Project H, "If You Build It"

Can we re-invent the shop class? "If You Build It" follows a public school program where students learn to design and build their future.

Much has been written about the shortcomings of the American public school education system, yet little about programs that offer a promising alternative to the status quo. "If You Build It", a new documentary follows designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller to rural Bertie County, the poorest in North Carolina, where they worked with a local public high school to re-invigorate their curriculum and a sense of what’s possible.

Image courtesy of Brad Feinknopf
Video courtesy of Story Into Action

It began in 2009, when the local school board asked Project H Design to reform the outdated ‘shop’ class model. Beyond basic construction and vocational training, Pilloton and Miller wondered how they could show the power of creativity, design thinking, and hands-on building to meet today’s most pressing challenges. Living on credit and grant money, they started an in-school design/build class for 8th–11th grade students, called Studio H.

Each semester, Pilloton and Miller would lead their students through a full-scale design and build project where they researched, prototyped, engineered, and built structures for the community. Based on the STEAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), the program relied heavily on experimentation, non-stop production, tinkering, and a lot of dirt under the fingernails.

The students were both enthusiastic and ambitious. In their first year, thirteen Junior High School students completed a 2000-square-foot structure called the Windsor Super Market. To this day, it is the only farmer’s market pavilion in the country designed and built entirely by high school students. The following year, students designed, branded and launched the local farmers market association in their hometown.

The next group of students created additional farmstands to augment the Windsor Supermarket in various roadside locations. A boys’ team designed and constructed the “magic carpet” farmstand, which was installed in downtown Lewiston. A girls’ team built the “modular box” farmstand on Highway 308. Throughout the turbulent process, a film crew documented every step from inception to completion.

Within four years in Bertie County, Project H touched the lives of over 400 students, helping them develop the creative confidence, critical thinking, and citizenship necessary for their own success. "If You Build It" captures the raw emotion of their journey, proving a new kind of classroom can empower the raw brilliance of youth, transform communities, and improve K–12 public education from within. Let’s hope public school systems around the country take notice and a chance on their children’s future… for the public good.

Unfortunately, Pilloton and Miller have since parted ways with an ultimately change-resistant school board in Bertie County, NC. They are now based at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, CA. Since the start of Project H, they have completed over 24 community design projects and engaged in design-based professional development with over 200 teachers nationwide.