Challenging Youth to Think Like Architects

When Trent Hicinbothem’s mom, Ellen, learned that he wanted to be an architect, she immediately went to to purchase tickets so he could tour Fallingwater. Coincidentally while on the website, she found information about the Trent Hicinbothem at FallingwaterGnome House Design Challenge. “I told him about it and he was in,” she says.

Offered to students ages eight to 13, the challenge helps learners think through a unique set of criteria and challenges to design and build a house for a client, a gnome. More than 2,000 students have participated since the program’s establishment in 2015, including international participants from Canada and England.

“I liked that I got to design something original and actually build a model by hand,” explains Trent, a sixth grade student at Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School who was a 2019 challenge participant. “I also enjoyed having a client, Marley Tosselsprock, who had specific needs including room for 17 kids and his hobbies!”

Fallingwater’s Curator of Education Ashley Andrykovitch says it’s important for participants to get real-world, hands-on understanding of what it’s like to be an architect. “Fallingwater was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with the Kaufmann family’s likes and needs in mind. So, students are undertaking a similar process with their gnomes,” she explains.

The challenge can be completed by individual students or groups, as individual or classroom projects. Students are invited to Fallingwater to display their gnome houses and collaborate with local and international students.

Trent said being at and getting to tour Fallingwater was amazing. “This project pushed me to be more creative, understand problems and solutions, while learning the different steps of the design process and what architects and designers actually do.”

Sarah Kohrs, an artist and homeschool parent, says, “I’m constantly seeking engaging project-based learning opportunities for my sons, Joey and Ezra.” They both are currently completing the challenge, which Sarah says has been an enchanting introduction to architectural design.Trent Hicinbothem at Fallingwater at the Gnome House Design Challenge

“I loved the whimsical approach of case studies with gnomes. It’s appealing to children and a delightful setup for what can be an intense and technical topic,” Sarah shares. “I will always remember how my two sons’ eyes lit up with excitement when they received their clients and learned more about them. It brought the creative imaginations my children already have to life and encouraged them to dream.”

Sarah, Joey and Ezra will travel to Fallingwater from Virginia to participate in the symposium this May.* She says the Gnome House Design Challenge encourages children to think outside the box.

“So often, we look for the right way to do things in art; forgetting that the core of creative expression isn’t paint-by-number or an outcome of specific step-by-step instructions,” she says. “These have their places, but it’s the vision created in the process – the dreaming – that makes this program such a gem.”


Know a student interested in participating in the Gnome House Design Challenge? Apply by July 1, 2020 to be eligible for the August 2020 Gnome House Symposium. 

Learn more about the Gnome House Design Challenge by emailing or calling 724-329-7840.

*Due to the closure of Fallingwater on March 15 due to COVID-19, the date for the annual Gnome House Design Symposium at Fallingwater was moved from May 15 to Saturday, August 15, 2020.