Interview: Emily Pilloton on chicken coops, farmers markets and sustainable design

High school students designing chicken coop models

Project H
Founder Emily Pilloton (Social Innovation Fellow 2009) has her hands full in Bertie County, North Carolina. She’s educating high school students about design and sustainability, prototyping chicken coops and planning a farmers market in a neighboring town. We caught up with her for an update.  

PopTech: What’s Project H up to in North Carolina?
Emily Pilloton: We have been working in Bertie County, the poorest and most rural county in the state, for two years now. Last year, we wrote a curriculum for high school education and became high school teachers. The Studio H curriculum draws from many of the design/build curricula you see in college-level architecture programs, like Auburn's Rural Studio, but does it at a high school level. The motto is "Design. Build. Transform." We teach design as a creative process, within a shop class environment, and put those skills towards solutions that Bertie County is asking for and desperately needs.

PT: How is Studio H different from other forms of design education in public schools?
EP: It is full-scale architecture - each year our students design and physically build one contextually responsive and socially transformative piece of architecture to house new innovative programming in Bertie County (this year, a farmers market pavilion for the town of Windsor).

Over the course of one year, our junior-year students earn 17 college credits and high school elective credit, plus summer wages to build the structure. My partner Matthew Miller and I are the instructors, teaching every day, three hours a day, within the school schedule. We have raised money to self-fund the entire program and offer it to the school district at absolutely no cost.
PT: What specifically have you been doing in the classroom?
EP: The classroom is one part design studio, one part wood/metal shop. We teach a lot of things at the same time, from how to do community-based research to MIG welding, the Adobe Creative Suite, drafting, modelmaking, masonry, etc. The tools are secondary to the process, which is a design/build process that blurs the line between ideation and production. We're in the woodshop, then back at the drafting tables, then outside pouring concrete, then inside reading a New York Times article about an issue relevant to our project. We encourage experimentation and a non-linear process that can be scary for students, but ultimately helps them break down a lot of the preconceived notions that limit the creative process.

We teach design as a creative process, within a shop class environment, and put those skills towards solutions that Bertie County is asking for and desperately needs.

PT: Tell me about the chicken coops the students created. How did they come about, how have the students been involved, and what’s next?

A completed chicken coop

EP: The Perdue chicken processing plant is the largest employer in Bertie County. One of our students has ten chicken houses on his family's farm, each with 25,000 chickens in it, for a total of 250,000 chickens at any given time. They come in and out on a six-week cycle for Perdue. This is what our students know about chickens. The chicken coop project was a way to say, "Let's take something that we all know, that is part of our every day lives, and look at it from a different angle. What does it mean to have six chickens in your backyard, as a sustainable food source, rather than 250,000 chickens?"

PT: How did you get the students in the right frame of mind to approach that shift in thinking?
EP: Matt and I pulled a semi truck hood out of the woods and converted it into a makeshift chicken coop simply so that we could have chickens IN the studio with us during this project. We told our students, "get to know your clients."

The design process started with the design brief, what the necessities were, and took a conceptual route, beginning with action verbs that could cue students' initial formmaking.

PT: Then what?
EP: This project was all about iteration. On the first day, I said, "Someone draw me a chicken coop." And as I expected, I got a box, with a gable roof on top. Then I said, "Okay, now you can't draw a gable roof. Now go draw me 50 more. Now turn those drawings into models. Then pick one and do 25 more models, each one making it a little better." Of course, they looked at us like we were crazy, but this process of iteration and being fearless in production was new to them.

PT: What did the students wind up producing as a result of this exercise?
EP: By the end, we had three of the coolest chicken coops I have ever seen, named "Chicken Circus," "ChickTopia," and "Coopus Maximus" (a Buckminster Fuller-inspired coop that took a 2-dimensional hinged piece and lifted up into a 3-dimensional geometric roof). Two coops were delivered to families down the road who wanted to have a more sustainable source of food on their land, and the third will be located at the farmers market when we build it this summer.

PT: What do you see as the long-term impact of the work Project H is doing in Bertie County as it relates to the community as well as the students?
EP: It's funny, I don't see us as "Project H, doing work in Bertie County" anymore. I used to, two years ago. Now, it is my home, and it is the headquarters of our organization. The farmers market is as much for me and my desire to have locally grown tomatoes as it is for the community. That may sound selfish, but I really think that personal investment in "humanitarian design," or whatever we are calling it these days, is key to seeing it succeed, and to producing solutions that are truly sustainable. The mayor is our next-door neighbor. We go to Rotary Club meetings. I don't plan on leaving in the near future. I see what we're doing as much less about something "for" our students or the community than as something we are able to do professionally that hopefully will grow something within our students and within the community that will thrive beyond Project H.

The solutions coming out of Studio H, in particular, are by no means ours. They belong to our students. When the farmers market is built, sure, we were the teachers of the Studio H curriculum, but that building will be entirely the vision of our students. To see the vision for a struggling rural place come from the youth is really special.

PT: You mentioned that you’re getting involved with building a farmers market pavilion in the Town of Windsor this summer. How did the idea evolve, what will it entail and who is involved?
EP: Yes, we are designing, building, and funding the construction of a 2,000-square foot farmers market pavilion. The idea came from the town, from the students, and was reinforced by our own observations of Bertie County being an entirely agricultural county (tobacco, cotton, soy, peanuts), with nowhere to get fresh local produce.

A student explains initial farmers market concepts at a public exhibition held by Project H

Walmart is 15 miles down the road. Obesity rates are off the charts. The only restaurants in town sell barbecue, fried chicken, and similar Southern cuisine. The farmers market will provide an economic and social gathering place to encourage community and well-being. The architecture itself will be "vernacular sublime" - our students have worked together to come up with a really amazing scheme that is locally inspired, but incredibly innovative in its materiality and the way it sits on the site, the way people move through it, its orientation to the rest of the town, and its brand messaging. We break ground on June 1st (Project H is the general contractor and designer of record), should be done by August 1, and it opens to the public mid-August.

PT: Can you share an example of a design project that’s been used to motivate and educate communities, which you’ve been particularly inspired or impressed by?
EP: Last year, I visited PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama (which coincidentally is remarkably similar to Windsor, the county seat of Bertie County). PieLab was conceived of by my friends and colleagues from Project M (no relation to Project H), led by John Bielenberg. I ate eight pieces of pie in two days. Aside from that, though, it was an amazing example of what design (a space, a story, a message) can do to physically bring people into the same place, to talk, eat pie, drink coffee. There are plenty of community-based projects that are successful but so focused on particular part of the community (often the most underserved), rather than focusing on bringing all parts of the community together. I was really impressed by PieLab's ability to unite all walks of live, via baked goods. We're definitely drawing inspiration from PieLab for the farmers market. Hopefully some good kale and watermelons in Windsor will have the same effect as pie in Greensboro.

Images: Project H

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