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Eden-Hall Gifted Sixth-Graders Propose New Uses for an Old Building

Fifty-one gifted sixth-graders at Eden Hall Upper Elementary School in the Pine-Richland School District learned much about resilience and perseverance in completing their work for PHLF’s Fifth Annual Sustainable Design Challenge this spring. The Design Challenge is a collaboration of PHLF and Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus, where the curriculum and daily life revolve around environmental sustainability. It was supported this year by the McSwigan Family Foundation Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

The subject of this year’s Design Challenge was the Morledge House Garage, a wood-frame, Dutch gambrel-roofed building of about 550 square feet located on the Eden Hall Campus, not far from the elementary school. After a tour of the Eden Hall campus and an opportunity to examine and document the Garage last October, the students were given their task: to convert it into a place for the community to gather and learn about the Campus’s mission and activities. Working in 12 teams, the students were encouraged to “think big,” pursue ideas that excite and inspire them, and transform those ideas into building uses that are meaningful to them. Their final designs were to be captured in architectural models they would present to a panel of jurors for review and critique at the beginning of May.

Projects were well underway when COVID-19 slammed the brakes on life as we know it. Having left their drawings and other working materials behind when the school closed on March 20, the students were forced to reconstruct their projects from memory. The teams continued to work on-line from home; without their models and drawings, however, they had to convey their ideas through slide presentations, using only words and allusive pictures.

Despite the difficult circumstances, the students produced a wonderfully rich stew of imaginative ideas for transforming the Morledge House Garage. Among the new functions they envisioned:

  • a place for re-selling used clothing and books, and an organic community garden;
  • a center for teaching marketable skills like sewing, auto repair, and cooking, together with an art studio and garden;
  • a survival camp where hands-on activities teach participants how sustainability connects to nature;
  • a “Healthy Hearts Community Center,” with library, yoga studio, maker space, and bike rental and repair shop;
  • a building with indoor and outdoor zones for a variety of activities designed to help people with disabilities; and
  • a center for the study of butterflies, color, and air quality, with a café selling seasonal fruits.

The students’ extensive research was evident in the numerous sustainable materials and other elements their projects incorporated. Cork flooring, aluminum interior walls, solar exterior paint, roof gardens, bicycle-generated electricity, book cases constructed from dead trees found on the site, a chair re-purposed from a grocery cart, and natural illumination were among the strategies the students employed to maximize their projects’ sustainability. And as several teams pointed out, the most sustainable aspect of their work was re-using the historic building.

“I’m always amazed at how quickly students in our design programs ramp up to an understanding of architectural ideas. We kind of throw them in the deep end and say, ‘OK, kids, here’s your assignment. Have at it!’ What they produced was thoughtful and sophisticated,” said Tracy Myers, co-director of education. The jury, comprised of architects, specialists in sustainability, and PHLF staff, agreed, noting that they had previously been unaware of some of the materials the students proposed.

Jennifer Kopach and Joanna Sovek, teachers at Eden Hall Upper Elementary who have been involved with the Design Challenge since its first year at the school, said, “We are incredibly proud of our 6th-grade students. We talk about resiliency all the time. These students showed resiliency and perseverance. Their positivity and success provided closure and a sense of accomplishment.  We are so happy their hard work paid off and excited for them as they begin their next adventure.”

A lesson for all of us as we continue to adapt to uncertainty and changing circumstances. Well done, kids!

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