Education Artisans

An Innovative College Takes A New Approach

by Scott A. Williams

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – “America is not producing building artisans,” according to Colby M. Broadwater III, President of the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, South Carolina. “That fact was captured here in Charleston after Hurricane Hugo. We had to import a lot of labor to repair historic buildings, and in many aspects there was more damage done to these buildings through improper repairs than was done by the storm itself. The dearth of qualified artisans following Hugo was recognized as a serious problem, and a group of community leaders decided to do something about it. They founded the American College of the Building Arts.”

The idea for the institution was born in 1998. In the years following a board of directors was formed and the process for seeking state licensure was undertaken. In 2005 the college officially opened as a nonprofit institution of higher education. Accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Art and Design is a seven-year process that continues to move toward completion as Commitment goes to press.

“This college was born with a simple mission,” says Broadwater, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General. “We are here to educate artisans. We are the only school of this nature. Though we borrowed some patterns and forms of European guild institutions, we are distinct because we provide a well-integrated liberal arts education with one of six concentrations in the building arts as a specialty.”

Students can concentrate in Architectural Stone, Carpentry, Forged Architectural Ironwork, Plaster Working, Preservation Masonry or Timber Framing. They learn the mechanical and craft elements of their chosen trade, and also learn the art and history behind it. What’s more, they also learn materials science, business, leadership, client management, how to bid and negotiate a project, how to defend their work before the National Trust and more.

The program’s students are diverse in terms of age and prior experience. Some are of traditional college age. Others already hold advanced degrees in different fields and want to pursue a new career. One student was literally a rocket scientist and grew tired of the work. He wanted to do something lasting and meaningful, and now he’s learning plastering. Another student already had an architecture degree but wanted to learn how to do the actual work of building to better understand preservation.

“Our concept is unique and it’s working well for our graduates,” says Broadwater. “They leave here well-rounded in academics and in the building trade they have chosen. They emerge as educated artisans.”

Among the school’s recent graduates is Meghan Elizabeth Shogan who graduated with a degree in preservation masonry (brick work). Meghan was chosen to attend the Coubertin Foundation in France, a highly-regarded center for intensive training in stone, wood and metal crafts. She is only the second American and the first American woman to attend the Coubertin for the crafts equivalent of a Rhodes Scholarship.

“We believe that we have created something unique in regards to how we teach,” says Simeon Warren, Dean of the American College of the Building Arts. “Our theoretical and practical model is integrated through all four years, in all trade and academic courses. Schools traditionally emphasize one side or the other, but we are trying to develop students with a broader perspective who understand the building arts through both theory and practice. Consider historic preservation. One aspect is the theory of preservation, where it started and its historical context, but there are also the practical aspects, such as how to document a building and do appropriate repairs.”

Warren believes that the building trades and construction industry lack a connection between professionals such as architects and engineers, and people who do the building work. “This college is that missing link, that midpoint,” he says. “We are finding ways to make art and history and business all relate to the building trades. As an independent college we are in a position to create our own program and make our own decisions. We believe it’s a great way forward that will benefit our students and the industry.”

Programs of study are academically challenging and labor intensive. In a typical week, students spend two days in the workshop and another two days in academic classes. At many universities two days would be considered a full course load.

“Academically, the business of education has let the building construction industry down,” Warren contends. “Construction is one of the nation’s biggest employers and it’s crucial to provide well-trained workers when so much of the industry is being outsourced. We are trying to rebuild a system that allows the industry and the trades to be proud of themselves. That’s why we are elevating standards of education for workers in the building arts. To succeed, our students must understand that they need the integrated education from both sides, the desire to do it and the commitment to see it through. We’re producing graduates who can offer a refined set of skills that employers need and that few workers possess.”

The heart of the American College of the Building Arts campus is the Old Charleston Jail. Completed in 1802, the Old Jail had been unoccupied for 61 years when the College acquired it in 2000 from the Housing Authority of the City of Charleston. The building had neither electricity nor plumbing and required extensive repairs. An emergency stabilization program met the historic property’s immediate needs and preservation efforts have been ongoing ever since. Today, most of the school’s classrooms and administrative offices are in the Old Jail.

Dean Warren has been instrumental in ensuring that all students at the college build something of lasting value. Part of their unique educational experience directly impacts their college through restoration and preservation projects for campus buildings. “Lessons learned in the classroom and are frequently applied to the classroom,” says Warren. “The Old Jail is a living laboratory. Our students have built 55 sets of windows. There were none when they came.”

Students may be asked to create pieces or parts for builders of quality construction who want a specific type of building material. “If someone comes to us and asks us to do a piece of work, be it stone or iron or whatever, we can add it to the curriculum,” says Warren. “The students learn, the customer gains a quality piece of construction, and the school gets funds to use toward improving and expanding programs.”

Artisans who understand stone and can work it effectively are in great demand. They work as stone carvers, stone masons and installers, stone preservationists, project managers and business owners. Much of the work done by stone artisans is in the field of preservation, but there is also great demand for new stone construction. This trade cannot be taught quickly and to become proficient at working many types of stone requires the development of highly refined skill sets. For individuals with a disposition towards detail and precision, good hand and eye coordination, and a strong mathematical background, stone is an ideal trade.

James Hanford is Professor of Architectural Stone Carving. He spent most of his career working on large medieval cathedrals, having apprenticed at Lincoln Cathedral. He also worked at Salisbury Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral, the latter being the seat of the Church of England. Hanford emphasizes the importance of teaching fundamentals. “We train students in the time-tested, hand-work methods of their trades,” he explains. “Once they are proficient in the fundamentals, we show them how to apply some modern tools to their craft. Having an air compressor, for example, makes certain aspects of stone carving easier and faster.”

Hanford is helping the college build more opportunities to work on projects for outside customers, such as a carved stone doorway he is building for a customer in Baltimore. The project includes 21 carved stones. There are six jamb stones per side, each 14 inches square and weighing 150 pounds, that give the doorway its 7½ foot head height. A cornice goes over the top, adding two more feet of height, and there’s a lintel piece six feet across.

“It will look reasonably grand when it’s done,” Hanford believes, “and it’s solid. I’m working with hand tools predominantly and for most of the grinding work I use pneumatic tools made for stone. Using tools powered by an air compressor allows a stone carver to remove material a lot faster. That’s good if you know what you’re doing. We wouldn’t be able to do this work without the air compressor that was donated to the college. Every tool we get allows the college to teach in a different way, utilizing the old and the new, striking the balance between contemporary and traditional practice. It’s raising the program to a different level.”

Early in 2011, Ginna Waddel, head of Finance for the college, was working to secure a new compressor for the stone program. In doing her research, she discovered that Atlas Copco Compressors LLC was also located in South Carolina. She visited the website, liked what she saw and made an inquiry that was answered by Doug Evans, an Atlas Copco Sales Engineer based in Garden City.

“I gave Ginna a call to introduce myself,” Evans recalls. “At first we talked about needing a compressor for pneumatic tools, but when she explained it was for a new college, a nonprofit organization teaching specialized arts of the building trade, I was really intrigued. Eventually the discussion led to needing a price, but I wondered if we could do more than offer a good price.”

Evans contacted Tom Eshelman, Regional Sales Manager, and suggested that Atlas Copco donate a compressor to the school. Eshelman was receptive to the idea and arranged for Atlas Copco to provide the American College of the Building Arts with a 5hp KT5V-80 piston compressor with an 80 gallon vertical tank. The college had the system professionally wired and located it in a building adjacent to the students’ covered outdoor work space.

“A piston type compressor is ideally suited to the start/stop operation of pneumatic tools,” Evans says. “The KT5V-80 is a reliable, low maintenance machine that is popular with small businesses including auto body shops, gas stations, and repair and maintenance facilities. It’s also one of the compressors Atlas Copco builds in South Carolina.”

“We had a project for a client/donor and needed an air compressor for carving the stone,” Waddell explains. “And we needed it soon. Atlas Copco not only got us a great compressor quickly, they gave it to us. To say the least, we were thrilled.”

The stone trade has evolved from simple dry stone walling to the intricately detailed carving on cathedrals and monuments throughout the world. Artisans who work stone use many of the same methods and tools developed over centuries, although modern tools – such as those powered by compressed air – have made the process of working stone easier.

“There’s no other college anywhere that specializes in these old-fashioned building arts,” Evans says, “and I just thought donating a compressor would be a great way to support a nonprofit educational institution that needs the kind product we make and trains skilled workers for an industry that we serve. It felt really good helping to make this happen. I have been in the compressor business for 21 years and no one that I know of ever donated a compressor before, but Atlas Copco did.”

Atlas Copco is proud to join other organizations and people who are intrigued by the concept of the American College of the Building Arts and actively helping the school continue to grow. “Organizations can support the education process by pointing an interested student in our direction or by sponsoring a student to come here,” says President Broadwater. “This will help us to become a key player for the U.S. economy and for quality construction.”

The young men and women being trained and educated at the American College of the Building Arts are already doing great things for the preservation of quality construction and the quality construction of new buildings. “We have graduated three classes,” says Dean Warren. “Where we are now is a great testament to some visionary people in Charleston who founded and are building this great and unique institution.”



This article originally appeared in Commitment. Republished with permission.
Copyright © by Scott A. Williams. All rights reserved.