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Club #3401 Playhouse

Thirty years ago, Mike Lerner discovered architecture through a career exploration program at Dallas’ Skyline High School.

Today he’s back in the classroom himself, serving as advisor to the same career program that drew him to architecture.

Lerner and his Architecture Explorer Post students at Skyline and Irving’s MacArthur High School worked together this year to design and build a playhouse for Dallas CASA’s Parade of Playhouses, which runs July 12 to 28 at NorthPark Center. Dallas CASA’s trained and supervised volunteers advocate for the best interests of children in foster care, and Parade of Playhouses is the nonprofit agency’s signature awareness event.

“I have heard that you learn more by teaching, and there is so much truth to that statement,” Lerner said. “Working with these students helps make me a better architect and a better mentor for our younger staff in the office.”

Lerner, a resident of Lake Highlands’ Town Creek neighborhood, was a senior at Skyline High School when he got a job at Architecture Demarest that allowed him to see what goes on in the design profession. After college, additional training and other professional architecture jobs, Lerner returned to Architecture Demarest five years ago as a senior project manager. Serving as an architecture advisor to local high schools allows him to pass on the same opportunities he had to today’s students. The program is designed for students interested in careers in the construction industry and prepares students to be managers, interior designers, architects and engineers.

“The students are very creative,” he said. “When we first introduced the playhouse project, there were so many good ideas it was difficult to narrow it down to a single project to build.”

Building a playhouse for Dallas CASA brings design challenges. But for Lerner and his students, the challenges forced them to think from a child’s perspective.

“We originally told them to design a playhouse that their six-year-old selves would have wanted in their backyards,” he said. “From there, they had to rein it in to work within a building program.”

MacArthur graduate Jon Ledesma, now in his second year at North Lake College and an intern at Architecture Demarest, said the first thing he noticed is that a six-foot ceiling works well for children but “feels tiny for adults.”

“We have to look at the house from a different perspective and access our inner children,” he said. “We wanted a place where they could be comfortable and in a safe place all their own.”

Students learned just how much work goes into each phase of a project, especially construction, and can begin to appreciate the relationship between a scaled drawing and an actual building. During a recent build date, Lerner overheard a student say “This is a lot more complicated than I thought!”

MacArthur students Sophie Geiger and Krishna Patel, both rising seniors, were working on a recent sweltering Sunday.

“The construction part is a lot more difficult than I thought,” Geiger said. “I learned a lot. Even if I didn’t want to be an architect, this has been so interesting and fun.”

For Patel, the design aspect was the most appealing. As a child, he was the kid who built Lego structures of his own design, not following the instructions. The playhouse has felt, to him, a little like adult Legos.

What’s in it for Lerner, an Eagle Scout and general do-gooder? It’s just plain fun, he says.

“It’s fun to see the students’ reactions to the technological tools we use and the amount of work needed to take a project from an initial sketch to a completed building,” he said. “It’s also fun to give them a hands-on experience of the materials that go into a project. I hope they gain a better understanding of the thought processes behind the buildings that they live in and go to school in.”

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