Local Architect Designs After-School Architecture Program for Kids

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TJ Monahan, Photo Courtesy.

One Montgomery County man is bringing a new after-school program to local students in the form of architecture classes meant to teach kids all the best parts of architecture.

The program, founded by local architect TJ Monahan, will give kids from third to seventh grade the chance to learn in a system modeled after collegiate architecture that will give them skills in the iterative process, problem solving, design thinking and public speaking while they work on a semester-long project.

“I went to architecture school at Catholic University in D.C. And no hyperbole, architecture school changed my life in none of the ways that you would expect it to. Like they learned about design and scale and proportion, and I did learn about these things. But more importantly than that, I learned self-confidence and how to communicate an idea to a group of people,” Monahan says.

Monahan has been working in the region since 2001 as an architect and remodeler and began an architecture blog called Designed Happy in 2014, which picked up steam and gained a following of several thousand people as he educated them on the home design and building process.

That blog eventually turned into a book in 2020, and Monahan opened up his own architecture and design firm also called Designed Happy in 2023, which is how he is now able to run the Studio DH program.

“I didn’t know it [the Designed Happy blog] was going to turn into a full-fledged architecture and design practice at the time. I started this blog to educate people about our industry,” Monahan says.

Designed Happy gives Monahan an avenue to host kids for this after-school program, which will take place at their office every Thursday over the course of their eight-week program from 5-6 p.m., beginning with their first-ever class on March 7.

He says that the idea for this class came to him through the combination of several interests: architecture, teaching and working with kids, as he’s a long-time youth volunteer in his two kids’ lives and a former architecture teacher at Catholic University.

“I’m pretty involved with my kids’ stuff. And it [Studio DH] just seemed like a natural extension of what I like doing,” Monahan says. “So, it seemed like there was an opportunity to put all of these things together and find a way to teach some kids some real design stuff that is interesting.”

Monahan adds that another factor that guided his interest in starting this group was the transformative experience he had when he went to architecture school and that he felt a lot of the complimentary skills he learned there would have served him well if he had learned them earlier.

Monahan likens the course he’s running and the learning outcomes associated with it to sneaking vegetables to his kids through smoothies.

“The kids don’t know they’re learning about public speaking, but they’re going to learn about public speaking. Imagine if you’re making a smoothie and you put vegetables in the smoothie, the kids think they’re having a smoothie but really, they’re taking vegetables,” Monahan says.

He adds that the program will also teach them how to draw like an architect, to quickly come up with a lot of ideas and parse them down to the best ones, and to defend their ideas against questions in a compelling way, stuff that you wouldn’t get from a more typical after-school class.

These learning outcomes are set to come via that semester-long project the students will be working on, which will see them designing a structure of their choice in their backyards and which will give them a first-hand look into the practice of architecture.

So far, Monahan says the reaction to his idea has been positive, with some people saying they were surprised this wasn’t a thing sooner.

And Monahan is hoping that the feedback turns into positive results for the program and a sustained interested market in this type of education and the possibility for expanded programs in the future.

“There needs to be enough of a demand for the class to make that work. So, in terms of educating kids, that [an expansion of the program] is where it could go if there is enough of a market for it,” Monahan says.

Monahan’s example might also serve well for other community members looking to start similar educational programs that utilize other unique fields of study as educational tools.

“You have to start from a place of wanting to help and if you genuinely want to help, there’s probably a market for people that want to learn like that. That’s the goal with the class. We want to help kids and there’s plenty of kids that are interested in design and architecture. And there’s probably plenty of plenty of kids that are interested in a number of topics,” Monahan says.

But for now, his focus turns to the first group of students ready to learn the skills that changed his life.

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