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W.Va. native teaches how, and why, to build things that will last

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.

"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 douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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