Film Review: If You Build It

A duo of innovative designers teaches high-school students how to use design to build up their poor, rural community.

There’s the buoyant optimism and sleek problem-solving in a TED talk, and then there’s the reality. If You Build It focuses on a year-long project to teach high-schoolers the fundamentals of design with the aim of building up their declining rural community of Bertie County in North Carolina.

The opening snippets of the doc include clips of the project’s creator, Emily Pilloton, onstage at a TED conference (the virally successful nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading”). She confidently inspires the audience with tales of how design can empower the disadvantaged and make their lives better. The reality is messier, more political, and fraught with challenges.

If You Build It takes a straightforward look at the efforts of the designers and kids in Studio H, a program for high-school students to gain hands-on design experience that will help them and their communities. At the lead are working and romantic partners Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller. Together, they teach a group of ten kids, some of whom already possess the kind of scrappiness and know-how you get from helping your parents with their farm or construction business.

The Studio H curriculum starts the school year with simple projects, designed to build skills and fill the kids with a sense of wonder. Water purifiers are made from clay and cow pies. The students design their own, slickly painted cornhole consoles, a game played by throwing beanbags into holes in plywood boards. Then they start getting more creative. They build the most modern, creative chicken coops you’ve ever seen, filled with jagged angles that evoke Frank Gehry more than “This Old House.” Then it’s on to the main project: a home for a farmer’s market that will help fill a gap in fresh food and give small entrepreneurs a place to sell their wares.

Emily and Matthew are all too aware that design is not a cure-all. For design to succeed, items must also be used, which involves taking into account the political and cultural nuances of a community. They’re already in unwelcome waters. The superintendent who hired them is ousted by the school board at the beginning of the year, and their salaries are withdrawn. They work for free, using $150,000 in foundation grants to help fund the projects and keep Studio H afloat. Matthew is coming off a failed project in Detroit, where he built a cheap house which he gave to a woman for free. She in turn refused to pay the utilities and insurance to maintain the residence. After her eviction, the house was ransacked and ruined. The duo intends the farmer’s market to be the opposite of that—a project that’s welcomed and embraced by the locals, built by their children and maintained by the community.

More informative than emotional, the documentary catches some of the angst involved in such an undertaking, but always appears to be engaging with the subjects at a respectful arm’s length. Candid, unguarded moments occur with just enough frequency that you wish there were more of them. That distance separates If You Build It from documentaries like the crowd-pleasing Spellbound, where it’s easy for audiences to become completely invested in the goals of its protagonists. Still, the feature has value for raising awareness of Studio H’s efforts. In showing the victories and pitfalls of such an undertaking, it provides ample instructional value to would-be visionaries intent on changing the world.