“Constraint builds ingenuity,” declares Matthew Miller in the documentary “If You Build It,” with his life and business partner Emily Pilloton quickly quipping, “We’re masochists a little bit.” And that little exchange perfectly encapsulates the determined spirit of the pair as they bring their fledgling student program Studio H to Windsor in Bertie County, one of the poorest in North Carolina. And the concept is simple: design, build, transform. That’s the motto Miller and Pilloton live by, and in the film by Patrick Creadon, we witness the tremendous sacrifice they make to prove their simple idea that giving back to the community is a lesson that leaves an impression that lasts far beyond the classroom.
And for the kids of Windsor, the classroom is mostly a laptop. With budgets being squeezed, some of the students see as much as half of their course load taking place online (including phys ed, that requires nothing more than hoping teens will respect the honor system as they fill out an activity log). But this arena, where the potential of these students is being left to wither away, is fertile ground for Miller and Pilloton who arrive with a proposition to run a design class with a curriculum they will build, with a final project that will benefit the entire town of Windsor. It seems like a no brainer, but politics gets in the way, and by time classes start, the pair are left with no salary, pouring all the grant money they’ve received into Studio H while they eke out a living on credit cards.
But sacrifice seems second nature to both Miller and Pilloton. For his graduate project in architecture, the former raised money and built an actual house for a needy family in Detroit, and both worked at professional firms before venturing into the world of non-profit. And that world is a place where resources are few, and where trust is earned, and while the school board may be skeptical, Miller and Pilloton win over the people who matter most: the students. A bunch of rural kids who are at ease in pick-up trucks and working with livestock, they don’t seem like the most obvious candidates to wind up being inspired by the designs of Buckminster Fuller, but soon the small group in Studio H are creating blueprints for things that would turn heads in trendy shops in SoHo.
“If You Build It” follows Studio H through its first, full semester and the film’s charm is in watching these unlikely kids, quietly dream up big ideas, gaining confidence in their newfound abilities every step of the way. Conducted in an open wood shop style environment, Miller and Pilloton lead the students through the design and build of two smaller scale projects first—a cornhole board and chicken coop (both of which result in finished concepts you won’t believe)—before launching the big finale: a massive, farmer’s market pavilion for the town of Windsor.
Creadon’s documentary is an intimate look at a small scale town, with two people bringing some rather progressive ideas to the table. And while “If You Build It” briefly hints at the tension between city officials and Miller and Pilloton (which the film could have used more of), its main focus is on Studio H itself, and whether its creators have a great idea on their hands or an ambitious folly. But as the low key documentary eventually makes clear, while the logistics of the program need ironing out (particularly as Miller and Pilloton are learning how to run it on the fly their first time out), it’s already a success when it has kids engaged and excited, two adjectives any high school teacher would love to apply to their students.
Less a polemic than a portrait, “If You Build It” celebrates the flinty spirit that spurs problem solving and creativity (sometimes at the same time) with people not dedicated to a cause, but to people. It’s an important distinction, but one that shines through this warm documentary, reminding us of the wonders that can be accomplished simply by rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. [B]