Design

A house for the homeless, courtesy of 220 teenagers

An architect and her team of middle- and high-school-age helpers race against the clock to finish before graduation.

Students build tiny homes entirely from scratch.Students build tiny homes entirely from scratch.Students build tiny homes entirely from scratch. (Photo: Project H Design)

Emily Pilloton is a humanitarian architect dedicated to educating and inspiring the next generation of makers, builders and designers. As founder and executive director of Project H Design at REALM Charter School in Berkeley, Calif., she runs a series of innovative programs that teach middle and high school students how to design and build ambitious projects that impart empowering skills.

This year’s Studio H class – made up of 70 high school and 150 middle school students – is designing and building two tiny houses entirely from scratch.

“Everyone has some idea of what their house or home could or should or does look and feel like,” Pilloton said. “The idea of home is so personal, and yet housing is such a big issue – economic and social and environmental.”

Once completed, one tiny house will be donated to Eugene, Oreg.-based charity Opportunity Village, which provides transitional housing and job training for the homeless. (Bay Area zoning restrictions prevented them from donating the 8x16-foot structures built on trailers locally.) The other tiny house will be auctioned off at the end of May to fund the project in future years.

Before settling on a final design, the students built miniature prototypes.

“It's always the hardest part when you're looking at 75 models on the table, each one painstakingly made by a student, and you know you can only build one final design,” Pilloton said. She and project lead Rebecca Seward and teacher Thomas Gardner tallied how many students chose elements like a shed roof, or palette wood siding, or a loft bed, grouping them into a few archetypes to distill their collective ideas into a cohesive design that would allow each student to feel an ownership of the final product.

“I think the final design is an accurate representation of the brilliance of all of our students and staff as a collective creative group,” Pilloton said.

Students pose for a photo while building a tiny home.Students pose for a photo while building a tiny home. (Photo: Project H Design)

Once the final design was chosen, students built doghouse-sized scale models. “We always [build] a smaller version of the final product,” Pilloton said, “to begin to familiarize ourselves with the form, and also to practice construction methods. Most of our students have no experience framing a house or even cutting a 2x4 on a chop saw. The doghouses were an opportunity to practice the vocabulary and layout associated with framing ... and to begin to work as a team to accomplish a big goal.”

Pilloton said that building two tiny homes on a school schedule with a crew of young students and a non-negotiable end-of-year deadline of June 5 is not without its challenges.

“Because we're bound by the school schedule, we don't have the luxury of time,” Pilloton said, adding that the biggest challenges have been “the staging and choreography of a full-scale construction project overlaid with the pressures and structures of a public high school. There's no firing a student like on a real job site. They are sent to the principal's office. We aren't just site supers, we're also teachers and social workers and stand-in parents sometimes. The multi-faceted work we do every day means we have to balance the building and the quality of the work with the needs and wants and dreams of our teenage students. It's terribly hard, but our team wouldn't have it any other way.”

While the creative and practical skills the students were learning could carry over into other disciplines, there was something particularly moving about the process of building a home.

She said her favorite moment of the building process thus far was the day they instituted a hard hat zone rule during construction. “That day, in neon hard hats, our students rallied and raised four walls on each house,” she said. “I almost cried standing back watching them physically raise these giant framed walls together, then stepping back and saying ‘Oh my god, it's a house now.’ It is a visceral and emotional moment when something that started as a model on your desk becomes an actual structure that someone is going to live in.”

Watch the students at work on the tiny houses and learn more about Project H Design in this video narrated by Pilloton:

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