Skip Navigation  

Volunteer architects, designers help SF students build dreams

Meredith May | November 4, 2014 | SF Chronicle

Original article

By day, they are typical high school students. But when 1:30 p.m. rolls around, they are working alongside real architects and designers, helping draw sketches, price out materials and make models of San Francisco’s ever-changing skyline.

Build San Francisco Institute is a unique collaboration between working professionals and the public schools to create a fully accredited “small learning community,” for juniors and seniors who love to build things.

The Architectural Foundation of San Francisco rallies volunteers from 13 firms that specialize in design, engineering, construction and architecture, and matches them with a student. The San Francisco Unified School District provides a teacher for afternoon classes in environmental science and architectural design.

Each semester, 20 students enroll in the half-day high school program. Twice a week, they work alongside their mentors in a firm, getting a firsthand look at their chosen career. The other three afternoons a week, they gather in a design studio in The San Francisco Chronicle building South of Market for lessons on sustainability and the latest industry software, such as Autodesk 3ds Max and Autodesk Revit Architecture.

Students dive into projects such as creating a livable community on Mars, complete with robots that break up surface ice to melt and filter into drinking water; domes for houses; and shipping containers with agricultural crops inside. Students used Autodesk 3-D animation software to present their futuristic city and collaborated with students in England and Australia.

Another assignment was a quick lesson in how expensive it is to live in San Francisco. Students were given $1 million to build their dream home and — after figuring out materials and land costs, taxes and fees — built 1,200-square-foot, market-rate “micro-apartments.”

“It’s beneficial to get experience outside of school,” said Nicole Chin, 16, of Philip and Sala Burton High School in San Francisco, who plans to study architecture in college. On her first day at the Hornberger + Worstell Inc. architecture firm, she helped organize stacks of floor plans and learned how to use a printer that produces large-format pages for drawings.

“When I look for my first job, I will know how to speak and dress and be punctual, so I can be a professional,” Chin said.

Build San Francisco Institute began as a summer program in 1993, after a chance meeting between the then-superintendent of the San Francisco public schools and a few architect friends.

“He said he had about six kids interested in architecture, and could the architects take them and teach them something,” said Alan Sandler, executive director of the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco.

Over the years, Build SF has transformed into an after-school program and finally to a fully accredited program with grades that appear on student transcripts. But most important for students, they graduate with real work experience.

One mentor, who worked in the real estate division at the Port of San Francisco, tapped Build SF students in 2006 to help with the remodel of Pier 14 along the Embarcadero, by creating 16 tile installations. Students drew sketches and pitched their designs via PowerPoint to the port, and were rejected — twice — until they came up with a winning design theme: the history of boats on the bay, from Indian reed boats to clipper ships and tugboats.

“It was the perfect project because we took them to the Maritime Museum to study history; they had to use engineering, math and learn ceramic art techniques,” said Will Fowler, programs director for the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco.

The student leader of the tile project was Justin Marks, who is now 26 and works as a junior designer at Hornberger + Worstell in San Francisco, where he recently helped with the remodel of a 100-year-old courthouse in Fairfield, designing laser-cut panels for its grand outdoor staircase. And for the past few years, he’s helped mentor Build SF students.

“People always ask me how I got this great job, and it all started with people at Build SF being patient and teaching me, and I feel I should pass that on to other students growing up in the same neighborhoods,” Marks said.

Nixon Lee took all the engineering classes offered at Burton High and joined Build San Francisco Institute looking for more.

“One day I want to be an engineer,” he said, during a break in a lecture on environmental sustainability. At his mentorship with engineering firm Murphy, Burr and Curry Inc., he is helping calculate materials costs for the structural components of a building.

“It’s good they are volunteering,” Lee said. “They are helping make it possible for us to become future engineers.”

Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: mmay@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meredithmaysf

Build San Francisco Institute: 901 Mission St., Suite 110, S.F. (415) 393-9933. E-mail: info@afsf.org.

Page updated on 11/04/14