Some Notes about Build SF

By Douglas Tom / July 01, 2010

I grew up in Salinas, California in the 1960s, a small agricultural town where there were four stop lights and all the kids rode bikes all over town until dinner time. My father was a butcher. My mother had grown up in Salinas, and I went to the same high school she did. There was an incredible mix of kids at Salinas High.—Caucasians, Hispanic, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese—children of wealthy agribusiness executives and children of farmhands. We were all friends. I grew up thinking that’s the way the whole world was. I spent a lot of Saturdays at my father’s butcher store, drawing baseball parks on his table saw. I really loved baseball, and somehow I made a connection between these ballparks and architecture,   that eventually lead to  my studying architecture and becoming one. To this day I believe that there is a link between these passions.

Fast-forward 30 years. Unlike the easy choice my parents had for my public school education in Salinas, as parents in San Francisco, my wife and I were faced with the difficult, and very common, decision about whether to send our children to public or private school. At the time, I was president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects and a member of the board of the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco, I very much wanted my profession to be part of the broader corporate community that supported and worked towards the needed changes in public education,,.  It turned out that there was a group of like minded board members at the Architectural Foundation. Our discussions lead  to our  starting a program called Build San Francisco.

Build San Francisco began as an after-school activity sponsored by the Architectural Foundation. It’s evolved into a full partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District, various public agencies, and more than 50 professional design and construction firms acting as mentors. On average, 25 San Francisco high school students pair up with mentors who work with them two afternoons each week throughout a semester, exposing them to the workings of their practice. The other three afternoons they’re in a classroom downtown hearing visiting architects, and other professionals speak, doing classroom assignments and learning the latest software, like Autocad and Revit. They earn college accepted course credit for these afternoon sessions through the school district.

Students  get exposed to real projects, led by  a full-time teacher and their mentors. Projects have included the San Francisco Ferry Building renovation, Pac Bell Park, the San Francisco Main Library, and the renovation of Piers 1-1/2, 3 and 5. Project-based learning is a powerful tool, because students  are shown these projects from many different angles. The students collaborate in small teams, and produce videos, models, drawings and other tangible things that reflect what they’ve learned, and then they often present them in public forums, like before the City of San Francisco’s Port Commission.

Build SF is not about turning kids into architects. Architecture is just a great way for kids to learn, because it’s a generalist profession., where design is just one part of any architectural project. So while the students are learning about design, engineering and construction, they’re also gaining knowledge about the broader issues of political science, project financing, communication, and public policy.

When I was growing up in Salinas, a family friend, a local town architect, said that an architect knows a little bit about a lot of things, but is not a master of any one thing. I still think that there’s a lot of truth in that.

One student I mentored a few years ago was a former gang member, he could have been one of my own high school friends. He’s told me that his internship here turned his life around—he went on to graduate from high school and get accepted at San Francisco State University. Last I heard, he wanted to transfer to the architecture program at UC Berkeley. For me, that’s what it’s all about—that kind of transformation, when you can see, and feel, the light switch going on.. It’s interesting to realize that the things we do when we’re young—and the opportunities and people we’re exposed to—have huge effects that impact the choices and directions of our lives. Maybe someday soon I’ll get to design that baseball park.