In The Building Hero Project, Philly Residents Learn How To Design Better Neighborhoods (And Cool Products)

The maker space has given locals the opportunity to design things, like lamps and benches, that they’d never have the chance to work on otherwise.


“Not every 17-year-old girl can say that she knows how to use power tools.” So says Philadelphia high school senior Tamira Bell, who now wields laser cutters and circular saws in a local program called the Building Hero Project. “Being able to use them allows me to solve daily problems through building.”


On certain weekday afternoons, Bell joins a group of others–from college design students to professional carpenters and neighborhood skateboarders, all united by their interest in redesigning community spaces–in a makerspace called the Department of Making and Doing. Each of the “Building Heroes” in the program has been invited to spend time in the workshop, training to become community change agents and entrepreneurs, after working on a separate community improvement project.

“To be able to extend the impact of our work, and to meet the ever-growing demand for it, we really need to invest in people,” explains Alex Gilliam, founder of Public Workshop, an organization that works with communities to co-design and build everything from parks to bus stops and canopies for a farmers market. The Building Hero Project gives the chance for natural leaders at those events to keep going, learn more, and then take those skills back to their neighborhoods to solve more local challenges.

Though the heart of the program involves working on public spaces, the latest project underway is a new line of products that funds the work. That makes it possible for students to get paid $10 to $14 an hour as they learn how to design, build, and teach others. The products, like a lamp initially sketched by Bell with her twin sister Tiarra, look like the kind of thing that you might find in a Brooklyn boutique or even a museum store.

“People don’t buy the products because they like the story,” says Gilliam. “They buy them because they like them. We don’t know the people who are buying them–not like Kickstarter, where it’s mostly your friends.”

The products come from whatever needs that Gilliam and the other designers see in their everyday lives; one bench, for example, was originally designed for “bench-bombing” neighborhoods that lacked public space.

The organization launched an Etsy shop last fall, and was quickly overwhelmed with orders. A third of each sale covers costs like materials and tools, a third pays a Building Hero, and a third goes to help the program grow.


The funds also help support unexpected needs, like transportation to the workshop for those who can’t afford it. “There are two amazing young adults who don’t have much and can’t afford travel to Philly so they’ve been walking and skating here–in the snow,” says Gilliam. “The other Heroes agreed that a portion of the slush fund could be used to pay for their travel.”

For many of the people in the program, particularly the high school students, working in the space is transformative. “Here, they’re not really burdened with the perceptions that they may have carried around for many years at school about their ability to achieve,” says Gilliam. Through every sale, those in the program are also learning the basics of entrepreneurship, from how to evaluate and redesign products based on sales to fulfilling and shipping orders.

For 18-year-old Winn Geary, the program has led to a new goal of becoming a product designer. “Being a part of The Building Hero Project has shown me the wide range of things an industrial designer can do,” he says. “I’ve become a maker and doer, I can identify a problem, design a solution and use the materials at the Department of Making and Doing to make it a reality, then sell it to others on the Etsy store.”

It’s the kind of thing that students often wouldn’t have access to in schools. “Most people don’t have the opportunity to do things like this,” says Tiarra Bell. “If you think about it, this type of thing isn’t happening anywhere else.”

Through the program, students are also learning how to teach. Each product in the Etsy store offers the option to learn how to make the product yourself through a class taught by a Building Hero. This summer, the program may offer a paid bootcamp for others to come learn how to build from the students in the program.

“We’re bootstrapping, and it’s still a prototype,” says Gilliam. “But it’s working. Each sale has generated more innovation, entrepreneurship, and skill building. It’s setting people up to have more impact in their own work and their lives.”

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, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."