Want A Better Library At School? These Eighth-Graders Designed Their Own

As part of the design-build classes of Project H, the kids at this Berkeley school created a new room in their school–and rethought the bookshelf in the process.

Eighth-grade students at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, California, didn’t have a library, so they decided to design and build one themselves with some help from a new Kickstarter campaign. They also had some internal help: This is the first year that Studio H, a design-build class that first launched in rural North Carolina, has been in residence at the middle school.


In the past, other Studio H students–all high-schoolers–dreamed up and built everything from a 2000-square-foot farmers market pavilion in a food desert to a shipping container classroom. Thirteen-year-olds, it turns out, can also rise to the challenge of redesigning community space.

“The first semester was just skill building,” says Emily Pilloton, who founded Studio H. “Then we asked them, okay, now let’s look around us at our school community and let’s ask what do we need, but also what do we want? What are the things that we feel passionate about and we can physically build?”

The public school, which the local district opened as a charter school in 2011, is housed in a commercial building that’s been in a constant state of renovation since this year’s graduating class first started. There was plenty of room for improvement, but the students chose to work on a library as a legacy to leave to other classes.

“None of them actually used the word library,” Pilloton says. “They all said, we want a place to explore. I thought that was really a poignant way to put it. A library is not just a room filled with books.”

With some guidance from Pilloton and other teachers, 108 students designed an X-shaped modular building block for the library. “We fell on the X as a metaphor,” Pilloton says. “They’re all studying pre-algebra, so X is the unknown, X can be anything. As a structure it’s really strong because it’s just two pieces slotted together.”

Last weekend, the students whipped up 400 shelves on a CNC machine (the machine was borrowed from Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, who happens to live near the school). The shelves, which can also be flipped over to become the base of a stool or bench, will go to contributors on Kickstarter every time they pledge enough to add one to the school.


The students may also continue selling the shelves after the library is built and filled with books. “My dream is that we can have a CNC router set up and that this will be just one of the enterprises set up here at the school,” says Pilloton. “Last year we started a skateboard lab, and this could be the next thing.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.