All-Girl Garage Band Wears Hard Hats, Uses Power Tools

Architect creates workspace introduce young girls to building and construction.

Through participation in Girls Garage in West Berkeley, a non-profit design and building program and dedicated workspace for girls aged 9-17 in the San Francisco Bay Area, girls learn skills that not only increases their interest in STEM subjects but also increases confidence in all parts of their lives.

Through participation in Girls Garage in West Berkeley, a non-profit design and building program and dedicated workspace for girls aged 9-17 in the San Francisco Bay Area, girls learn skills that not only increases their interest in STEM subjects but also increases confidence in all parts of their lives.

It’s not everyone who breaks into a smile when asked if they love their job. Emily Pilloton can’t contain hers.

“My job is just so much fun. Selfishly, I’ve created the architecture firm I always wanted to work for,” she said.

Emily Pilloton is a designer, builder, educator and founder of the non-profit Project G Design and its sister program, Girls Garage.

Emily Pilloton is a designer, builder, educator and founder of the non-profit Project G Design and its sister program, Girls Garage.

Her design and construction crew doesn’t look like what you’d expect. It is made up of all teenage girls. They recently completed a public architecture project for an 8-by-20-foot parklet bench outside a restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area. They conceived, designed, prototyped, built and installed it themselves.

“My ideal architecture firm would literally be these girls and the women instructors I work with all in it to win it and super committed to solving problems together,” Pilloton said.

Girls Garage isa non-profit design and building program and dedicated workspace for girls aged 9-17. In this all-female space located in West Berkeley, Calif., the students are taught skills in drafting, carpentry and welding.

Welding is one of the many building skills the participants at Girls Garage are taught.

Welding is one of the many building skills the participants at Girls Garage are taught.

Now in its seventh year, more than400 girls have participated in the after-school program and summer camps, resulting in building more than120 community projects. This past summer, Girls Garage installed eight projects for community clients including a parklet bench, sandboxes, kinetic wind sculptures and mini houses.

Pilloton’s own route into architecture actually started from building community projects herself as a teenager. It was during a service trip to Belize, which she went on with other teenagers from around the country, that she realized this was the career for her.

“I lived in a very small village with a family and learned how to do masonry and wood framing,” she said. “We built a gazebo with a beautiful framed roof, as well as a series of outdoor benches and public furniture. It was the first thing I experienced as a young person that made me feel like I could contribute something in the world. It gave me a sense of value and purpose. Also, as a fairly petite young woman of color, I realized that I could do something that was both creative and technical, and my identity was a big part of that.”

Emily Pilloton and her team of instructors teach design and building classes in a supportive all-female environment at the Girls Garage.

Emily Pilloton and her team of instructors teach design and building classes in a supportive all-female environment at the Girls Garage.

Although this trip was the catalyst for pursuing architecture and embarking on a field that was both technical and creative, Pilloton always had an interest in design and building from a young age while growing up as the eldest of three daughters in Northern California.

“Both my grandfathers were engineers, and both my grandmothers were librarians. So, I grew up at this intersection between the mechanical, problem-solving driven engineering mind and the introspective bibliophile librarian mind,” she said. “I spent a lot of my childhood building forts and treehouses and just getting dirty and being a super tomboy.”

Pilloton graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture in 2003 from University of California Berkeley. She went on to do a Master of Fine Arts in Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which she completed in 2005.

“I purposefully did not get my architecture accreditation,” she said. “I wanted to get a Master of Fine Arts so that I would really not have a rule book around architecture.”

Upon graduation,Pilloton got a job within the architecture field working in project management and furniture design. However, after two and a half years, she decided that her career needed to take a different path.

“I just hated every second of it,” she said. “I could not get on board with doing work I didn’t care about. Maybe that makes me a brat, but it was really hard to work for clients whose corporations or lifestyles I fundamentally did not believe in.”

Ultimately, Pillotonwanted to recreate that connection she felt between her work and community that she experienced in Belize. In 2008, at the age of 26 and with just $1,000 in her pocket, she founded the non-profit Project H Design.

“I founded it not having any idea how to run a non-profit or what the work would even be, but it was truly a way for me to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘Look, I know architecture and building can feel this way because I’ve experienced it, so I’m going to figure out a way to practice that as a professional and pay that forward in my community with youth,’” she said.

That’s exactly what she did. Enlisting the help of fellow designer-activist Matthew Miller, the two relocated to rural Bertie County, N.C., where they not only wrote a design/build program called Studio H for a high school shop class but also taught it to a class of 10teenagers.

“We thought, what if we could bring back shop class but orient the projects around things the community needed and infuse it with a more critical and creative-design-thinking studio process,” Pillotonsaid.

During the course of a year and through the use of design-thinking, coupled with real construction and fabrication skills, the students built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market pavilion. This was followed by multiple smaller farm stands in the second year. 

Following the success of Studio H in Bertie County, Pilloton moved Project H Design back to California. She set up shop at Realm Charter School in Berkeley to teach the shop class program. While teaching it, she couldn’t help but notice there was a division between genders and that female students with more potential needed nurtured. One group of girls was particularly inspiring, volunteering to take the lead on the jobsite or operating all the power tools.

“This was the birth of Girls Garage and a means to better serve girls in a space that felt safer than a co-ed shop class,” she said. “Even though Studio H was an awesome class and we did amazing projects, you could never really escape that tension. There was tension for me too being a female teacher trying to teach 17-year-old boys how to weld, who often did not automatically believe that I could.”

In the summer of 2013, the first Girls Garage summer camp was launched. It sold out in one week. Following its success, it expanded to offer after-school classes and workshops.

“In the beginning we were very scrappy,” Pillotonsaid. “We were running Girls Garage out of a gym and using other school space where we could just trying to make it work.”

With a waiting list of 100 girls, shedecided that Girls Garage needed to move into a space of their own. In 2015, they found a 3,600-square-foot workshop in West Berkeley. Moving the program to a dedicated space for her all-female team of students and instructors was one of the proudest moments of her career.

“It’s one thing for young girls and women to do something awesome together, but it’s another to carve out a physical space that they can do it in—a space where they feel safe and like they belong,” she said. “When girls walk in here, they know that it is a place for them, by them. And make no mistake, this does not mean that anything is pink.”

As a workshop, Girls Garage houses all the usual equipment and power tools one would imagine, as well as a few personal touches such as a community and donor wall that features laser-etched tiles from previous participants and supporters in the community. Emblazoned on the back wall in large print are the words, “Fear Less. Build More.” As Girls Garage’s motto, it’s an acknowledgement that everyone is afraid of something, but together they can become stronger and act in spite of their fears.

“I don’t actually believe in fearlessness,” Pilloton said. “We have fear for a reason, and it has a purpose. So, this motto is just to remind girls, who are often as young as 9 using a chop saw for the first time, that it’s totally fine to be afraid of using these tools. But, we’re going to practice bravery by doing these things together and support one another. Bravery is a muscle.”

More important than helping the girls develop a skill set that could lead to a possible career in engineering or the building trades, Girls Garage is really about instilling courage and confidence. Indeed, 91 percent of participants report increased confidence in all parts of their lives because of the programs.

Saying that, almost all of the girls in these programs, exemplified by the waiting list of over 200, are extremely interested in pursuing a career in these fields.

“The girls are not only interested, they’re hungry for it and are actively looking for programs and mentors to help them navigate the space,” Pilloton said.

To offer these programs at low- or even no-cost, Girls Garage has attracted funders and corporate partners, something that hasn’t always been easy.

“Although there is a lot of wealth in the Bay Area, it’s mostly concentrated in the tech industry,” Pilloton said. “It can sometimes be a harder sell to say that we’re teaching girls how to use coping saws rather than teaching them how to code. Our most fruitful partners and funders are truly companies that understand the value of supporting girls and women in all industries.”

One such supporter is Melinda Gates, co-chair of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, philanthropist and author of the recently published book “The Moment of Lift.”

“One of the things she is passionate about is supporting girls and women and helping them get into the tech sector, so last year Girls Garage was invited to partner with her new investment and incubation company, Pivotal Ventures,” Pilloton said. “While on her U.S. book tour in May 2019, she stopped by Girls Garage. Four of our girls taught her how to use a chop saw, drill and driver. She then cut and installed one of the 2-by-4 pieces for our parklet bench project. To see our girls, who I’ve known since they were 10, become teachers, and a teacher to Melinda Gates, was just extraordinary.”

Another partnership that stands out is with Lenovo, which has sponsored workstations and partnered with Girls Garage on two summer camp programs. For these camps, Ali Ent, a Lenovo  industrial designer who redesigned the Lenovo ThinkStation line of tower desktops, brought a ThinkStation P900 with her. She talked to the girls about how she designed it. Together, they took it apart and put it back together again. Ent was more than happy to do this as it was an opportunity to repay a favor following Pilloton’s inspirational talk about Project H Design she had given a few years prior at her university.

As well as working tirelessly with Project H Design and Girls Garage, Pilloton still regularly gives talks at various events and occasions, with highlights including a TED talk, an appearance on The Colbert Report and a presentation she gave to the Obama Administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. She is also the author of two books, “Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People” and “Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives With Design-Based Education.”She has another book the way. She is also a lecturer in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, where she teaches a class called Design Frameworks. It challenges undergraduate design students to form their own value systems and arguments for sustainable design.

Girls Garage is thriving. A question often posed toPilloton is whether she will expand it into other cities. The answer is no.

“I don’t really believe in franchising,” she said “I think dragging and dropping things almost never works out well. I believe that the thing that’s special about Girls Garage is that it is this space, in this place, in this time with these girls.”

However, Pilloton would like to grow its offering beyond the 28 program sessions that are currently available each year.

“There’s a lot of ways we could grow as a program that would be super meaningful to girls and to be able to serve more girls,” she said. “We want to buy a building so that we can run concurrent classes in different workshop areas. We want to be a fixture in the community. We’re here to stay.”

After all, it’s her cohort of girls that is most important to her. There are some that have been coming since her first summer camp seven years ago. Pilloton calls them the Advanced Design/Build Crew. It is the same group that designed and built the parklet. They are all from diverse backgrounds, which is something very important to Pilloton.

“They represent such an incredible breadth of experience and family and race and class,” she said. “They’re a truly diverse group of girls, and they’ve worked together for years now. Most of them only know each other through Girls Garage. It’s amazing.”

The relationship that Pilloton and her fellow female instructors have with the girls goes beyond merely instructor and student.

“I don’t ever want us to get too big that I don’t know the name of every girl that walks in here,” she said. “I think that intimacy is really important. We are so committed to who they are as human beings.”

While Pilloton might feel extremely lucky that she’s been able to invent the job that she’s always wanted, she’s at the same time providing an opportunity to a group of fearless girls who are building the world they want to see.