Sherrell Dorsey

FILM REVIEW: IF YOU BUILD IT Examines Design as a Catalyst for Transforming Communities

by , 01/21/14

bertie county, bertie county north Carolina, Christine omalley, eco design, Emily pilloton, green design, if you build it, if you build it movie, ifc center nyc, matthew miller, neal baer, patrick creadon, project h, project h design, sustainable design

“If I hadn’t have been a part of this program, I would have left school and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought,” explains Stevie Mizelle, a student featured in the new film IF YOU BUILD IT, which premiered in New York City last week. The feature length documentary chronicles the story of Studio H design innovators Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller as they turn a Bertie County, North Carolina shop class into a design studio and lead ten high school students in the development and build of full-scale projects of their very own. Forced to think outside of the proverbial box, the kids are pushed to hone both their skills and minds – a task that proves to be challenging yet rewarding. Director Patrick Creadon affectionately likens the film to “Extreme Home Makeover” meets “The Breakfast Club”. Inhabitat attended the premiere and checked the movie out for ourselves – read on to see what we thought!


bertie county, bertie county north Carolina, Christine omalley, eco design, Emily pilloton, green design, if you build it, if you build it movie, ifc center nyc, matthew miller, neal baer, patrick creadon, project h, project h design, sustainable design

The “privileged teacher transforming a low-performing school” narrative is a tried-and-true formula that has been seen in many other popular films. Contrarily, IF YOU BUILD IT does not attempt to display Emily and Matt as saviors of lost souls. Instead, we explore the nuances of their two-person team as they are challenged with the difficult decision other whether they should continue their quest in the absence of payment from a less-than-impressed school board. While the duo ends up hitting walls, living off of credit cards and small grants, and faces the deterioration of their relationship with one another, we also bear witness to Emily and Matt navigating their personal definitions of design and instead allow the Bertie County community to define their needs on their own terms.

Packed neatly into an 85-minute presentation, the film delivers room for continued exploration. While we felt an immense sense of pride for the students and their accomplishments, the film was ultimately less about the projects themselves and more about the untapped potential of young people to transform their communities through creative problem solving.

Throughout the movie, Emily and Matt provide a vision for what is possible when we ask students—and ourselves for that matter—what change is possible when we push ourselves to think differently about current systems and our external environments and decide to become problem solvers in our communities. Dubbed an experiment in social design, the Studio H design program is based on the belief that communities that have a stake in defining their own needs can create lasting change. “The students, their families, the town, the mayor and the council president had our backs,” reported Emily. “We didn’t anticipate the success.”

Where the film comes to a screeching halt is in its lack of further examination of subjects like race, class, culture, and the American public education system. Despite leaving us to our own devices to consider these challenges, IF YOU BUILD IT expertly keeps us focused on the conversation at hand: If you build it, creative problem solving, people-powered design and community buy-in just might very well show up at your door.

To find a screening of IF YOU BUILD IT near you, visit www.ifyoubuilditmovie.com.

 + IF YOU BUILD IT

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