"We're talking about ergonomics and the material itself. Through that process, they're learning about concrete and how to pour concrete. Right now, they're building foam and wood forms and we'll pour concrete next week."
Miller sums up the program this way: "Part design thinking, part vocational construction and always something to do with the community."
This kind of learn-and-build work is especially suited to rural communities, as it leaves behind useful structures that townsfolk take ownership in, Miller said. "The Studio H program works really, really well in a rural community. It's easier to get buy-in from a community on a very broad scale.
"The charity model works top down -- I come in, I offer design work, I pay for it, I walk away. There's no ownership from those who it was given to. Again, that was the problem in Detroit."
In Windsor, N.C., they fashioned a 2,000-square-foot farmers market, designed and built by more than 100 local students and attracting about 30 initial vendors, he said.
"We walked away two years later because our funding disappeared. The farmers market is [still] thriving because of that ownership and the stake the community has in that project," he said. "For me, to go back 10 or 20 years from now and look at that building and say I had a hand in doing this: fine. But for the kids to go back in 10 years and show their family and say 'Look, I built this!' -- that has so much more impact on the community at large."
Along the way, Project H students learn larger lessons than how to shape concrete, he said.
"It comes to an ability to question their surroundings and not just accept the things they're told to accept from all the media they're bombarded with every day.
"To question their context and be critical of it and be critical of what they're being fed, but also be critical of themselves -- how they operate and live their lives. That's 'design sensibility' to me."
"'I'm my best and worst critic' -- that's what I want them to pick up on because ultimately they have the power to change their surroundings. They have the power to change everything."
Just because he and his partner are teaching design, Miller added, "I'm not trying to send these kids to design or architecture school. Because I'm teaching them a table saw doesn't mean I want them to be carpenters.
"It's simply giving them the skill to be better prepared when they enter the stage of adulthood and reality: how to operate, how to be critical and progressive."
Contemporary kids also need every chance they can to be physical, he said.
"It's easy for them to pick up that cellphone and stare at it until the battery dies. And they will until you offer them something else. As soon as you put a tool in their hands, a reason to be physical and active, as soon as you do that, they're super engaged.
"I feel like we're on to something with this hands-on stuff. Since the 1950s, vocational education has slowly been pulled out of the public school system."
Miller seems to have quelled some of the demons that bedeviled his earlier work.
"Every day, I'm sort of vindicated in a way, because I know this work is important," he said.
He hopes young designers and educators, specifically, will take inspiration from his Morgantown talk.
"I think what an educator might take out of it is, it's OK to talk vocation again. And it's OK to put them in front of tools again. And it's OK to look outside the walls of academia and high school and engage with the community and work with these kids."
He also sounds enthusiastic about the Studio H model working in a predominantly rural place like his home state. He left West Virginia at age 18 and has been eager to return and share what he has learned along the way.
"For the past decade or so, I've been trying to get back to West Virginia and do this type of work. I haven't had that opportunity. I'm kind of hopeful this will lead to something."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.