WCC’s Residential Construction Program Changes Focus
By Janet Miller
WCC’s residential construction/construction technology program is thinking green and lean.
The program, one of the College’s oldest, is keeping up with the changing home construction market by retooling to focus on residential remodeling, with an emphasis on green building practices.
At the same time, the program will have a new home of its own when it moves from an off-campus site in Ypsilanti to the main campus this summer, a move that’s good for the budget and good for students.
Industry Changes Cause Shift In Focus
WCC’s residential construction program rode the wave of new home starts in Washtenaw County by building 10 new homes. But the new home market saw demand drop faster than a hammer hits a nail head, and students stopped building new houses in 2009.
Instead, students went where the work was: remodeling. They began working on construction projects at nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Peace Neighborhood Center, where WCC students learn to drywall, roof, install windows and trim, and more. They converted an Ann Arbor church into a duplex for transitional families, built a dock and pergola at Riverside Park, and built Habitat houses.
Sending construction students into the field began three years ago when Ypsilanti’s Growing Hope, a community-based nonprofit focused on gardening and healthy food, approached WCC for help building greenhouses at area elementary schools. That began the shift away from building new homes to helping community organizations with their building needs, said Cristy Lindemann, program coordinator.
“The College is funded, one way or another, by the community,” Lindemann said. “Why not give back to the public? It’s a good thing for students and it’s doing something good.”
It also became an opportunity for students. “We are focused on getting students jobs,” said Ross Gordon, interim dean of vocational technology. Those jobs now come from the remodeling sector, not from new home builders. And they are coming from companies thinking green.
WCC began offering classes in green building in 2009, and now has classes in renewable energy, energy audits, and hands-on fieldwork. This fall, for the first time the College will offer a sustainable building certificate, Lindemann said. The College will also offer two associate degrees in residential building: a traditional degree and a degree in green practices.
Green Practices Help Keep the Green In Our Pockets
Green building appeals to more than just tree huggers. Homeowners are interested in ways to save money, Lindemann said. “They want to know what the payback is over the long run with things like sealing ductwork, envelope sealing, and proper insulation. It’s not just building green—it’s energy savings. No matter what side you are on with global warming, everyone wants to save $100 a month in heating and energy costs.”
The residential construction program will still include what Lindemann calls “sticks and bricks”—the basics of residential construction. “Housing is cyclical and new housing will come back around,” Gordon said. “Our students will be ready for both.”
Shifting the program to sustainable remodeling will separate it from other residential construction programs and is expected to cause enrollment numbers to grow, Gordon said. “It will set us apart in the region and the state because we are combining theory and lab work with real field experience.”
All that will take place in a new facility. The program moves from rented space on James L. Hart Parkway in Ypsilanti to the former Skilled Trades Annex on the west side of campus. The building has been renamed the Henry S. Landau Skilled Trades Building in honor of the former WCC trustee and respected builder. It has been renovated to include three classrooms and a lab area in time for the Fall 2011 Semester.
Moving the program back to the main campus benefits everyone, Gordon said. It centralizes the program in one location and allows for smoother cross-department cooperation, such as a shared class in sustainable home energy with the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) program.
It also benefits students. “It allows students to be part of the larger institution,” Gordon said. “If they are working on their associate degree, they’ll have easy access to English, math, and science courses.”
And it’s money-wise, saving the College rent. While the College needed a large space to build the new, modular homes that were transported to home sites, the shift to renovation requires less space.
Students Work With Habitat for Humanity
The changing focus brought WCC and Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley together. When the housing bubble burst, Habitat shifted from building new homes to buying foreclosed properties and renovating them, a move that has allowed the nonprofit to more than double the number of families it serves.
WCC residential construction students have helped Habitat increase its amount of renovation work 30 percent for the fiscal year that just ended, said Rob Nissly, housing director for the nonprofit. Over the past 18 months, students have contributed several thousand volunteer hours, working on everything from concrete projects to building a second-floor addition. “This is something that can't be duplicated in a classroom or warehouse,” Nissly said, “and is likely to be the type of work they will encounter in the workplace.”
Lindemann hopes having residential construction students learn and work in the community will have the added bonus of helping them develop good habits. “I hope, once students leave here, they’ll continue to help nonprofits out,” she said. “Not every day maybe, but they’ll continue to give back to the community.”
Janet Miller is a freelance writer.