If You Build It: A True Story of Hands-On Design Education

What if high schools replaced shop classes with results-driven, full-scale architectural projects, where the goal was to collaborate and make something substantial for the entire community? If it sounds idealistic, perhaps it is – the reality on the ground can be full of setbacks and surprises, as this film illustrates in evocative detail. The title of the documentary in perhaps intentionally open-ended, because, unlike the phrase’s cinematic inspiration (Field of Dreams), what will happen if you build something is never quite clear until you try.

Directed by Patrick Creado, If You Built It is the compelling story of a one-year design/build program set in a small American town – a story that is both inspirational and heartbreaking. Its protagonist teachers are enthusiastic visionaries who are exceptionally driven. Its director shows these strengths but is unafraid to also highlight their steep learning curve, right alongside that of the students, who struggle at first to understand what two outsiders want to teach them and why.

design build movie poster

Studio H, a collaboration of designers/builders Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller, is named for its focus on “humanity, habitats, health and happiness”. Its mission is born of a noble desire to enable people to change where, how and how well they live, all through design.

design build model making

Of course, working with a community as outsiders is challenging, as this pair learned when they moved to Bertie County, North Carolina, for the first year of their program. Their mission: to start small and build up to a student-decided project for the community, which turns out to be a farmer’s market inspired by contextual farm architecture.

design build studio h

In the press, idealized renderings and carefully-staged architectural photographs often gloss over the gritty reality of designing and building projects, as well as the slow change in thinking that comes with learning to design. Likewise, a look at highly-funded architectural programs and never-to-be-built college-student projects can make it easy to forget we have an opportunities to educate high school students everywhere through designing to build.

design build construction collaboration

For anyone not educated in design, this movie provides  a unique window into how it can be taught and how understanding design processes can help us see unrealized possibilities in our everyday lives and built environments. For the broader public, the documentary also provides fascinating insights into the present and uncertain future of rural America.

design building process outdoors

In the end, the film is neither a tale of outright success or total failure, but it does show how even the best intentions may not work in every situation. In a key flashback, we are shown scenes of a home built for charity by Miller as a thesis project that ultimately failed in practice but also provided him critical real-world feedback on projects where the owner is just a passive recipient. Anyone interested in the intersection of architecture and education should watch If You Build It and sign up for screenings to share it with students.

rural design farmers market

design build project results

A synopsis: “IF YOU BUILD IT follows designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller to rural Bertie County, the poorest in North Carolina, where they work with local high school students to help transform both their community and their lives. Living on credit and grant money and fighting a change-resistant school board, Pilloton and Miller lead their students through a year-long, full-scale design and build project that does much more than just teach basic construction skills: it shows ten teenagers the power of design-thinking to re-invent not just their town but their own sense of what’s possible.”