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Tell Them I Built This: With Design Thinking, High Schoolers Reimagine Chicken Coops

Rural North Carolina's dominated by industrial poultry farming. Design thinking helped high schoolers rethink a Perdue chicken processing plant.


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In her recent TED Book "Tell Them I Built This", Emily Pilloton tells the story of Project H, her co-founded design/build high school program that transformed educational experiences and brought creative capital, critical thinking, citizenship and dirt-under-your-fingernails construction to a rural North Carolina community. The following is an excerpt:

Make it your own: beyond Perdue

The largest employer in Bertie County, with no close second, is the Perdue chicken processing plant. Many families raise chickens for Perdue, including our student Stevie's family. They house 250,000 chickens in 10 houses on their property at any given time. Bertie County’s chicken industry looks a lot like the worst scenes from the documentary Food, Inc. Industrial poultry farming brings with it troubling economic, animal welfare, and social dialogues, but also prosperity for many families. To speak of it within the classroom walls is a delicate dance between an honest critique of the industry and a sensitivity to the daily lives of local farming families.

When it came time to embark on our first architectural project, we started, as good architects should, with context. We were deep into our second rule: Make it your own.

In a county dominated by industrial poultry farming, we asked the students, "What's another way to look at it?" Instead of 250,000 chickens on your property farmed for a large corporation, what might it look like to have six to eight egg-laying hens in your backyard as a sustainable source of food? This question began our students' first adventures in the architectural design of a structure to be inhabited by living beings.

After "borrowing" two chickens from a friend's farm, we installed a makeshift coop in the classroom, built from a semi truck hood dragged from the woods behind our barn, some leftover wood slats, and chicken wire. This coop was in no way intended to be design inspiration but a quick housing solution for our new classroom hens, Henrietta and Jezebel. In three days, students would get to know their feathered "clients" by observing their behavior. How do they eat? "They like pecking out of the straw, not eating from the trough," noted Kerron. How do they sleep? "They huddle together up in the roosting box," said another student. After three days, our students knew far more about chicken behavior than they ever imagined or wanted.

When it came time to "raise the roof," we gathered around in a huddle. Matt and I had been working with our Team Coopus Maximus for the past three weeks to figure out how the heck to get the chicken coop to stand up. Kerron, Erick, Alexia, and Cameron had co-designed a chicken coop inspired by the simple geometry of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome. The coop was essentially a roof strip that reached from the ground up to the sky and back down again in a rainbow-shaped arc of triangular facets. The structure folded along the edges of smaller equilateral triangles that made up the whole. It was not a simple feat, in design or in construction.

When Kerron and Erick had first begun tinkering with the geodesic-inspired forms, they worked in cardboard. They scored a rectangular piece in parallel lines and triangular mosaics and folded the single piece into a faceted shape. The two boys made dozens of these "sketch models," learning from each one and trying again. Against the constraint of the design brief, which included the number of square feet, a need to protect the chickens against predators and weather, and a $500 budget, their forms butted up against function until a final design emerged.

This was iteration, and it was a totally foreign concept to most students. Unlike their other classes, which were far more formulaic (read this, do this worksheet, turn it in, take a test, get a grade), our curriculum asked students to begin, over and over again, without knowing where they would end up. We banned the use of two phrases: "I'm bored" and "I'm done." This approach is at the heart of design education and is a mode of thinking that students are not often taught in public schools. "Yes, but... " is always followed by "And so...."

Chicken farm image via Shutterstock

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