Read an overview of The Building Conference here.
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The Building Conference, Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at The Waterfront Hotel in Morgantown, is $199 for general registration, $99 for AmeriCorps and VISTA volunteers.
For details, go here.
•••CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wheeling native Matthew Miller has learned some lessons the hard way that he'll share at The Building Conference at Morgantown's Waterfront Place Hotel from Jan. 31-Feb. 2.
At age 34 years old, Miller is now a "design/build" instructor at the REALM Charter School in Berkeley, Calif. He has led an eventful life since leaving the state to study architecture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
He landed a plum job after his degree, helping to design 10,000-square-foot log homes in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He soon ran into a problem, and it was a big one.
"It was great, but it got old. It wasn't fulfilling at all," he said in a phone interview between teaching classes and building things with his students.
He tried a different route. He earned a master's degree in architecture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit, re-directing his design mission to people with a whole lot less money.
"At that point, my work really became more about working for the powerless, as opposed to working for the powerful," he said. "Going from a client building a 10,000-square-foot third home in Jackson Hole to indigent populations down on the streets of Detroit."
His master's thesis was not just words about houses, but an actual house, built with grant funding in 2008.
"My master's thesis at Cranbrook was a house built on a really blown-out street in Detroit. As opposed to just the design, but the design and building of one single-family home in one of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit."
It was a beautiful and generous new direction for his skills, and it ended up a mess not long after the tenants moved in, claiming what should have been a life-changing gift from a well-meaning young architect.
"The problem with the Detroit project is, it was charity at its worst," Miller said.
"We gave this house away. Nine months, later we had to evict them. It's a long, long story. From that we've learned that you've got to instill more education if we're going do this kind of design work."
That all leads to the topic of his talk at the wide-ranging Building Conference (thebuildingconference.com), an event devoted to the health, design, philosophy and regeneration of the buildings where we live, work, play and learn.
"That's kind of the gist of my talk at the conference: 'Beyond Charitable Design.' Beyond the charity model," Miller said.
The post-Detroit phase of his career included a six-month stint in Uganda, helping to build a school for AIDS orphans. The school was a project of Architecture for Humanity, co-founded by influential designer and community-inspired architecture guru Cameron Sinclair, also a keynote speaker at The Building Conference.
After he returned to the states, Miller taught architecture, including stints at the Rhode Island School of Design.
He met his business partner, Emily Pilloton, who founded a "design for change" effort called Project H Design. They collaborated on their Studio H school model of teaching "dirt-under-your-fingernails" design and construction skills, initially to youth in rural Bertie County, North Carolina.
"She and I developed this program to dive a little more deeply into education and design. Into sort of empowering communities through youth, as opposed to kind of helicoptering in and offering design solutions without offering any education," Miller said.
After they lost a key supporter and funding in North Carolina, they found a new home at the REALM Charter School along San Francisco Bay.
"Basically, it's kind of a design and construction and community outreach course curriculum that at the moment we're teaching to high school sophomores. We teach design thinking and then the construction skills necessary to sort of see some of those designs through."
His students are in the midst of a two-month-long design-and-build project that will produce concrete outdoor furniture at the school.