by Polly Carpenter
Boston is an old seaport city facing major challenges that include housing shortages, climate change, sea level rise, aging infrastructure, and escalating carbon emissions: challenges that can be addressed using design solutions. The Boston Society of Architects/AIA and the BSA Foundation (the BSA) recognize that the scale of these challenges ensures that they won’t be solved quickly or easily, and will ultimately be managed by the next generation. So how can we be sure that the next generation will be up to the task? The BSA, which has its headquarter at BSA Space in Fort Point Channel, believes that by giving kids design skills, they will be empowered to analyze conditions, envision solutions, advocate for, and work on the creation of safer, healthier, more resilient, and equitable communities.
Training kids to think like designers teaches them critical skills such as how to evaluate, synthesize, collaborate, and how to use creative problem-solving when confronted with real-world dilemmas, including those they’ll encounter in school and in the 21st century workforce. KidsBuild! was launched by the BSA at the Museum of Science in 1992 to do just that. At that first event, volunteer architects surrounded by a pile of recycled materials from their offices led hundreds of children on an adventure that resulted in the construction of a kid-sized city. But KidsBuild! has never been just playtime. KidsBuild! presents young designers and their families with the opportunity to work through real challenges and real processes.
Young designers start at the building department where a volunteer architect assists them in choosing a site from a city map and selecting a building type; then the volunteer grants them a building permit. Next, children visit the city layout — which for the last seven years has been in the atrium adjacent to BSA Space — and begin drawing their buildings. The city is color-coded by zone —residential, commercial, public, industrial, and recreational.
Kids are given an opportunity to complete a Green Building Challenge, which rates their design on five criteria including location and linkages, sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, and innovative design. Designers are awarded a special badge when their buildings give more than they take from the environment. This is important because The KidsBuild! city reflects the same urban challenges faced by the real Boston, and by asking kids to consider these factors today we are preparing them to think through solutions for their communities tomorrow.
Next is a visit to the Materials Yard where kids choose materials for their design. Everything from recycled printing tubes to fabric remnants to mosaic tiles and shoeboxes can be transformed into doors, windows, canopies, and columns. Who knew that old fabric swatches could become designer dresses in a cardboard boutique? Or that packing peanuts, with a little ink and imagination, become firefighters who can slide down discarded paper towel rolls?
In the Construction Zone, which is the next stop for our budding city builders, children begin to construct their visions. This process involves collaboration, overcoming challenges, and complex problem solving — all crucial work and life skills for 21st-century citizens. The volunteer architects roam the room giving design critiques, offering advice, and checking out new construction with a height standard measuring stick to ensure buildings don’t exceed that zone’s height limitations. But because this is the “real world” — if a structure doesn’t fit? The kids can apply for a variance.
Once the construction is complete (or still standing) it is placed on its site in the city layout. Designers must request a building review from the city building inspector, who engages them in conversations about their design intent and how they felt while creating the work. The project is then granted a certificate of occupancy. Real skills used during these processes include developing a flexible communication style, negotiating with others, and advocating for ideas that they believe will result in a better community — skills not often developed by kids who are only exposed to standard K-12 curriculum.
KidsBuild! is a blast. It’s an opportunity for architects to share their unique skills with kids and it’s a chance for kids to learn directly from people working in a field that might not otherwise be presented to them.
The BSA believes in the power of design to solve problems, and in the power of young people to make great choices for the future. It’s a complex world they are growing into but by sharing the power of design, we are preparing kids to meet their challenges.
KidsBuild! takes place April 6 and 7 at BSA Space. It’s a sold-out event that will be bustling with over 700 K-12 kids and their families and guided by 70 volunteer architects.
Also in 2019, KidsBuild! goes on the road, visiting two community locations so more children throughout Greater Boston can be served. Boston Properties and HMFH Architects are lead supporters of youth design education through their “Provoking Change” membership of the BSA Foundation’s Legacy Circle. KidsBuild! On the Road is sponsored in part by Eastern Bank.
The Boston Society of Architects is the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The BSA Foundation is a 501c3 charitable organization.
To learn more, including dates for KidsBuild! on the road, visit www.architects.org/kidsbuild.
Polly Carpenter, FAIA, is the director of Public Programs at the BSA Foundation.