Service Learning

SFCSxDesign: The Pallet House Project

February 6, 2015

For the past two years, our middle school students have participated in a two-week long design challenge that affords them the opportunity to put into practice the design thinking methodology that we teach at Shannon Forest. This mini-mester, known as SFCSxDesign, is held during the first two weeks of January following our return from the holiday break and is a fantastic way to bring students back to school in an exciting and engaging way. During this time, students are given a series of design challenges that help them grow in their ability to interview, empathize, prototype, iterate, and create authentic solutions for a multitude of users. They also research topics related to each year’s theme in order to identify and pursue solutions to the problems surrounding that theme.

Students are placed on grade-level teams of 4-5 each and provided with guided practice in applying the design thinking process to a number of different situations, such as redesigning the school’s cafeteria experience to creating prototypes of model classrooms for the lower school students . Practicing the design thinking process in meaningful, relatable ways, prepares students for addressing the larger, more complex challenges that we tackle.

Last year’s design challenge theme was “Poverty” which led us to examine issues such as accessibility to clean drinking water, food deserts, homelessness, educational attainment, and micro-lending, each at the international, national, and local levels. To introduce these topics, we tapped into a multitude of resources, including speakers from local service agencies, journalists who cover the plight of the homeless, and viewings of documentaries such as “Living on One” ( and “Extreme by Design” (, whose director, Ralph King, our students were able to Skype with.

Having examined multiple issues related to the broad theme of poverty, students worked in teams to design solutions to specific problems, one of which was homelessness. While several groups decided to design better tents for a local homeless camp known as Tent City or even creating housing from shipping containers, in the end, they decided that a more viable solution was needed. This led to the idea of creating a house from reclaimed shipping pallets, using a model developed by I-Beam Design ( Therefore, based on our students’ interest in exploring solutions to the problems of homelessness in our community, this year’s design challenge focused specifically on this topic.

To demonstrate the powerful potential of student-centered design/build projects such as the one we were undertaking, students watched the highly-acclaimed documentary, “If You Build It” (, a film that profiles the work of Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller as they lead their students in the construction of a farmer’s market for their community. While our work was not on the scale of theirs, our students learned that they, too, can influence lives within our city by designing and building a working prototype like the pallet house.

Besides building the house, our students were also challenged to design a model for a viable transitional housing community, one that would include homes such as the one they were building.  For practice, students began by creating their own nations, having to identify its physical and cultural geography, its economic structures, its demographics, etc. This required them to begin looking for connections and predicting outcomes based on those connections, skills which would help them develop better communities. Upon completion of the challenge, each group presented their nations and received feedback from their peers.

Following this assignment, students began researching urban design and how communities attempt to cultivate strong, inclusive cultures. As part of this process, we examined the work of William H. Whyte and viewed his landmark documentary, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. We then challenged our 6th grade teams to design and build pop-up parks within the size of a parking space, applying their knowledge of how space can be used to encourage positive interactions among people. This activity allowed our students to focus on creating such spaces within the communities they were tasked to design (

While students enjoyed the smaller design challenges that they participated in, the real highlight for most was getting to construct the house. Thanks to a donation by one of our parents, we had more than enough pallets with which to work. After purchasing the additional lumber and supplies that were needed (less than $500), the students jumped right in by sorting and organizing the pallets based on their condition.

Once the sorting was completed, we divided into 7th grade and 8th grade building shifts; while the 7th grade worked outside, the 8th grade researched topics related to making this a sustainable, off-the-grid house such as determining the options for insulation materials, lighting, siding, furniture, etc. Each work shift lasted about one-and-a-half hours, after which time the students would switch activities.

Despite the fact that it was frequently cold, students continued to work outside and from time-to-time reflected upon the fact that the ones who they were doing this work for were the ones who were sleeping in the elements the night before. Unfortunately, during our two week window, there were several days of rain which resulted in the work falling a bit behind schedule.

After two weeks of construction, students had all walls standing and while they made good time, the few days of rain prevented them for reaching their deadline. The work that remains, installing the loft and the roof, will be completed later this month by a dedicated group of students who have offered to work after school, a few days at a time (

During the last two days of SFCSxDesign, students focused their attention on completing their model communities designed for the homeless. In order to do this, they conducted precedent studies of other planned communities around the nation that feature tiny homes and/or transitional housing, such as Community First!OM Build, and Opportunity Village. Furthermore, students examined the integral components of strong, healthy communities, including ways to build and sustain a common culture among a variety of people.

After completing their research, students worked within their teams to create their first prototypes, one per team, resulting in twenty-four separate community designs (eight per grade level).

Each grade level then divided into two larger groups of four teams each in order to present their community plans to one another. After each team pitched their designs, the next stage of the process required the groups to create one master plan produced from the ideas of the four separate teams, resulting in two master plans per grade level.

Finally, each grade level presented their two master plans to the entire middle school. Each community had to account for the following information:

*total population (including demographics)
*total number of housing units
*approximate size (area) of community
*participating service providers
*justification of layout
*level of sustainability
*community rules/expectations
*unique features (community gardens, bike-sharing programs, etc.)

The plans were then submitted to a team of developers who are currently planning a mixed-income community known as Victory Village. This team served as judges for our students' designs. After reviewing the layouts and specifics of each community, they identified one of the sixth grade designs, "A Place to Call Home," as the strongest plan overall. This community provided the most viable and practical model and contained a combination of elements that are frequently found in the most successful transitional housing communities. However, the judges were amazed by the insight of every team and noted that each had elements that could be incorporated into the plans for Victory Village. (

As the two-weeks came to a close, we began making plans for our next steps for the project. We are currently planning a local symposium on homelessness that will include a panel discussion that featuring our several of our who will share what they learned throughout this year's SFCSxDesign Challenge and how community-build programs that tap into the creative capacity of our youth can help create solutions to local problems.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Design Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School

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