Hands-on student project now houses families

April 28, 2000
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When Paul Arthur went South to Florida to retire from teaching within the hvacr industry, he wound up buying a “Learning” house built by votech students and finding himself a new teaching job.

Arthur and his wife purchased “Learning House #3” back in 1988. Built by students of the Charlotte Vocational Technical Center in Port Charlotte, FL, Arthur learned about the house when applying for a teaching position at the school.

The Arthurs had planned to build a new home and had already purchased a lot, but were having contractor problems. While interviewing with the school, he was informed that the third Learning house was about to go up for public bid. They looked at the house, put in a bid, and now call it their home.

“I would never have believed that vocational students could build such a beautiful, well-constructed home,” says Arthur. “This is truly vocational education at its best.”

It is also one of the reasons that he accepted the teaching position the school offered to him — choosing to come out of his brief retirement.

House of lessons

Starting the Learning House program in the early 80s, the school recently sold its seventh votech student-built house at public bid. Sitting on a sodded, 80- by 120-ft lot, the three-bedroom, two-bath house has a two-car garage, ceramic tile floor, large lanai (porch), built-in kitchen, security alarm system and an automatic garage door opener.

The money from the sale of the houses goes back into the Learning House program to cover the initial start-up costs associated with the next house the students will build.

Built almost entirely by the students of the Construction Trades classes at the school, the houses take about two years to complete due to the fact that it is a learning situation for all students involved and the extra time necessary for coordination of building materials.

Usually, the lot for the house is donated to the school from a member of the community and the school contracts with someone to prepare the site for a house. It is after this that the students get involved.

The Building Trades students do the cement, structure, roofing, septic system, and landscaping work with supervision from instructor Win Heoben, a Florida-licensed building code contractor.

Wiring and electrical work throughout the house is completed by students of the Electrical class under the direction of Jim Anderson, also a Florida-licensed contractor.

Arthur, a class A Florida contractor, oversees his Air Conditioning/Refrigeration students as they install the air conditioning system in the learning house.

The system the students installed into the latest house is a 3-ton, 10-SEER “Thermozone” split air conditioning system with a Honeywell electronic thermostat, electric heat, and return air vents in every bedroom.

A good majority of the materials for the houses are donated to the school. If the students are going to install a security system in the house, they will contact companies that sell these systems, looking for anyone interested in making a donation.

Companies donating equipment and components for the house will often send representatives to work with the student installers, sharing their knowledge and expertise, says Arthur.

Just like a 'normal' house

Although the house is student-built, with supervision from the instructor-contractors, it is treated the same way that any other house built in Florida is treated.

This means that the Charlotte County building inspectors inspect the homes. However, the inspectors take the students through the building on their inspection, showing the students what they are looking for in construction and design.

“This helps the students understand the importance of doing the job right and meeting the building codes,” says Arthur.

Learning houses also carry the same warranties found on other new homes. Service calls are included free of charge under the homeowner’s warranty.

If there is a problem with the air conditioning, Arthur takes all of his students on the service call — adding to their hands-on field experiences.

Giving back to a giving community

“The Habitat for Humanity program is an excellent teaching tool when used in a congruent theory, shop, and on-the-job training program,” says Arthur. “It enforces the idea that the votech school and students that ask so much from the community can give something back to that community.”

Arthur’s students have been involved in the building of six Habitat homes. Since the homes are not real fancy, the duct system is easy to install and easy for the student installers to understand.

Arthur points out that the student involvement also gives the people that are building the rest of the house an understanding of the school and its students.

“This project can also be a great teaching tool for the economic law of ‘diminishing returns,’” says Arthur. “When I go to the job, I have to take 12 to 15 students who all want a hand in the a/c installation. Without really good planning, students can be walking into each other.”

Another good lesson for students is how to price the job in a competitive way. Other community-minded contractors will often bid the job against the school and due to their access to better equipment prices and leftover stock and supplies from other jobs, the school is outbid.

“Being outbid on a job is also another good lesson for the students,” says Arthur.

Another way the school gives back to the community is by building portable classrooms for the school district. The students gain more hands-on experience when installing the wall-mount units used in the classrooms.

The real lesson

“We are not here teaching just the theory of the trade,” says Arthur. “We also teach the practical, hands-on part of the trade that is so important.”

Since all of the instructors involved with these projects are not only certified state professional instructors, but are also state-licensed contractors, the students benefit. While each job is a learning experience for the student in the trade, it is also a learning experience in working for a real contractor.

“We believe that as teachers, we can teach it because we can all do it,” says Arthur. “Isn’t that what we all should be doing? Forget the contest where we compete against other schools that could be rigged. Doing it for real is where the real test is.”

Arthur is fiercely dedicated to his trade and his students — with no plans to go into his second retirement any time soon.

Sidebar: Whither students, sheet metal?

Even with a diverse, hands-on program, the Charlotte Vocational Technical Center Construction Trades classes are all suffering from decreased enrollment.

The Air Conditioning/Refrigeration class is down to about 15 students now. In past years, that number has been as high as 40, according to Arthur.

“Just the other day, I had 3 calls from contractors looking for good students to work for them,” says Arthur. “I only have one student graduating from my program this year.”

As you can see, the math just doesn’t work out. Schools are suffering right along with the rest of the industry.

Sheet metal gets 'snipped'

The school is currently phasing out the sheet metal portion of Arthur’s program.

“I hate to say it, but I have to phase it [sheet metal] out,” says Arthur. “Sheet metal skills make students more employable and gives them geometric layout skills, but we have to meet the needs of the community.”

“Contractors are telling me that they aren’t interested in sheet metal skills anymore. Now they want people with fiber glass skills.”

In the past, says Arthur, several of his students got very good jobs after graduation due to their sheet metal skills. In one case, a student was hired as a sheet metal foreman at a shop. Ten years later, the shop has had to layoff that employee because it has no more need for sheet metal.

Add to the lack of students and the changing needs of the community, the lack of understanding of votech programs.

“Here in the state of Florida,” says Arthur “the Department of Education has turned my hvacr program into a ‘one-room schoolhouse’ type of program.”

“This is what happens when politicians and professors that have never been in the trade or really taught in a votech school tell us teachers how to do our jobs.”

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