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September 29, 2005 8:48 AM CDT

New College Sets Out to Make Its Mark


David AvRutick
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the 2002-2003 academic year, the estimated number of high school graduates totaled three million. That same year, college enrollment hit a record high of 16.1 million at the 4,168 accredited U.S. institutions offering degrees at the associate degree level or above.

The 2005-2006 academic year is already proving that it's going to have its own set of interesting statistics, one of which will be easy for NCES to compute. Under the column titled "Number of building trade colleges offering degrees," there will be a single number "1." That's because, in August 2005, the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) opened its doors with the first and only degreed building trade program in the United States, offering associate and bachelor's degrees in architectural stone, masonry, plaster working, carpentry, timber framing and ornamental ironwork.

Fulfilling a Need
David AvRutick, President of the ACBA, says that the idea of the College has been on the tips of peoples' tongues since the '60s when the National Trust for Historic Preservation issued the Whitehill Report, documenting the extreme need for building artisans in the United States. However, it would take something much more pronounced than a report to make the message clear.

On the evening of Sept. 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, S.C., with sustained winds of 135 mph, peak gusts averaging 160 mph, and a 20-foot storm surge at high tide. Hugo was twice the size of Florida's devastating Hurricane Andrew of 1992, and the most intense storm the Carolinas had seen in over 100 years. With $7 billion in estimated damages, it was also one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history. Once the storm passed, those assessing the damage discovered that over 4,000 of Charleston's 18th and 19th century homes were in need of repair - and that few restoration experts were available to do the job.

"When the citizens of Charleston went to rebuild, the resources they needed weren't in Charleston, or in South Carolina, or even in the country," AvRutick explains. "They actually had to go to Europe to find many of the artisans who were able to do the work."

This really brought the message home that the U.S. was in desperate need of more restoration experts, and the idea of creating a four-year college in the building arts went from talk to action. To fulfill these very needs, a small team led by structural engineer John Paul Huguley created the School of Building Arts, now called the American College of Building Arts. After six years of networking, negotiating, lots of hard work and a $2.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the College is ready to make its mark.

Location, Location, Location
Charleston, S.C. - a small city that balances its historic antebellum homes with the cutting edge artistic creativity of the Spoleto Festival, Charleston Stage Company and The Gibbes Museum of Art - is the perfect location for a college that similarly aspires to balance traditional building styles with new, state-of-the-art techniques.

"Charleston is fairly well regarded as the home of preservation in America," claims AvRutick. "There really is no better place."

The College is presently housed in the old Charleston City Jail and has a campus at a former Charleston naval base in the Noisette community. However, the College recently purchased McLeod Plantation - a 330-year-old, 38-acre plantation with 11 antebellum structures located on James Island - that will be the future, permanent home for the institution.

"We're considering each of those structures to be living classrooms for the students, but the city of Charleston itself is really the living textbook," explains AvRutick. "The city embodies all six majors in the building arts and, not only are our locations inspirational, but the city itself is, and will be, a huge source of inspiration for our students."

"Educating the Minds & Hands"
ACBA is inspired by the centuries-old European guild methods - slightly tailored to the American education system - with 50% in-depth bookwork and 50% stringent hands-on learning. Also, since ACBA is an institution of higher education, students will not only be learning about building arts, both traditional skills and cutting edge technologies, but are also required to take general education classes.

"We are building a complete person as our graduate, not just someone who has strong skills in one of the building arts," explains AvRutick. "It's just as important that we develop their knowledge of history, their knowledge of mathematics, and how to communicate so that they can interact with their peers and society.

"Simply, they will be college graduates who happen to be building artisans," he says.

Simeon Warren, Associate Dean for Strategic Planning and Professor of Architectural Stone, says that studies will be "across the curriculum," where even general education classes will focus on the building arts.

He explains, "In English, you're reading about building artisans. In math, you're actually learning math, but then within your trade you're actually putting it into practice. And the same with history, drawing and drafting - you're learning things in those areas, but then you're implementing them within your trade classes."

In addition to the well-rounded coursework, students are also expected to complete an internship every summer. Warren says that the 10-week summer internships are a natural part of the learning process and necessary for the core curriculum of the College.

"It's that practice that makes you efficient and, only by doing that at a worksite or in a workshop, can you actually gain that day-to-day knowledge," he says. "The College is here to create the framework, and the summer apprenticeship really allows that framework to be put into practice."

The Faculty,br> Experts from around the world have been invited to take part in the ACBA phenomenon. The following is just a taste of the ACBA professors' backgrounds and what they have to offer their students.

Architectural Stone
Hailing from the United Kingdom, Warren began his trade at the Weymouth College and then earned an Advanced Craft Certificate in Masonry from the City and Guilds of London Institute. During his career as a stone carver, he has completed restoration work on such prestigious buildings as the Lincoln Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and The Houses of Parliament. He later rounded out his education by receiving a fine arts degree in environmental art from the Glasgow School of Art.

Representing one of the faculty members from the U.S., ACBA's Professor of Masonry, Frank Genello, has worked in the trade practically his entire life. His father was a contractor and Genello says he was mixing mud for him since he was 10. Later, Genello completed his bachelor's in English, master's in public administration and a second master's in historic preservation, working in the construction industry between degrees. After receiving his second master's, he started the American Building Restoration Company, which he's owned for 20 years.

The rest of the College's faculty and staff are equally proficient in their areas of expertise as well.

Warren says that faculty members jumped at the chance to work at ACBA because of the unique, groundbreaking opportunities that the College offers. It's not everyday that you get to add to your resume that you helped in building a four-year artisan college from the ground up.

"This kind of college has never been built before and it tends to create new curriculum and new thought processes of how to teach," says Warren.

Faculty members are also looking forward to teaching alongside some of the best building artisans in the world, Warren says.

"The level of faculty member we have here has created its own excitement," he explains.

The Students
At the first building artisan college in the country with world-class professors, you can only expect that the application process is going to be a little tougher than that of the typical masonry apprenticeship.

During the rigorous application process, students are evaluated on previous academic performance, achievement on standardized tests, an essay and demonstrated aptitude in their chosen field.

"All the students are asked to present a portfolio of the work that they've done," says Warren. "And that portfolio will continue into the curriculum so that, by the time they finish a four-year program, they will have a body of work that they can then present to potential clients and employers.

"We need to know that these people have got a direction and they're really interested in becoming stone carvers or masons, and the only way to do that is they've already got their own history and what they've done in their past."

AvRutick explains that the College is also looking for a certain type of individual, whether it's faculty, staff or students. "There is a passion you have to have to be here," he says. "What we're looking for in our student applicants are people with a passion and some evidence of their creative ability to be a successful student here."

With only 20 students enrolled in the College this year, ACBA's inaugural class is only half full, but the staff and faculty don't seem to mind. Running on a very tight timeframe, they are pleased that they received as many applicants as they did.

"We're very confident that this time next year we're going to have many more applications than we know what to do with," says AvRutick. "It's important to note that we have rejected people; we've asked people to go get additional work, whether it's on the general education side or the building arts side, and we are being selective with our students. We're not just trying to fill the spots."

By next year, the College should also have several options for tuition assistance available for students. Tuition for one year at the College is approximately $19,800, not including room, board, books and other necessities. However, ACBA staff is steadfastly building on the number of scholarships available, as well as a work-study course. Also, the College has just been approved by the Sally Mae Corporation, one of the largest lenders of student loans in the country.

"We are doing everything we can to make the program available to any student who is qualified, regardless of their ability to pay," says AvRutick.

Changing the Industry
AvRutick and Warren also feel that the College will have an affect on the six building trades represented, as well as the construction industry as a whole.

"As our graduates leave with the skills and talents that they'll have learned here, that will raise the bar in the industry," says AvRutick. "And as the public is more and more exposed to what the building arts are, that will become part of the lexicon and help raise the level of esteem."

Working cooperatively with the College of Charleston's historic preservation program and Clemson University's architecture department, there's also the opportunity to influence the relationship between the construction industry's professionals.

Warren feels that working with the students and professors from all three institutions will allow for better discourse between the professions. "When these architects and preservationists are coming out of college, they're going to be more open and understanding of what craftspeople are saying," he says. "I think that it's important to have these dialogues between the different groups of the building community."

The opportunities don't stop there, with community programs, industry workshops, book publishing, expansion to other cities and other partnerships all for the taking.

The reality is, with such a lack of quality restoration artists available in the United States, positive change is really the only conclusion.

"We really are a nontraditional college that has a nontraditional student body and a nontraditional faculty, and it's something that's sorely needed in this country," says AvRutick. "We believe that the College and our graduates will have a significant impact on the fabric of American culture and society."

For more information on the American College of Building Arts, visit

About the Author

Jennie Farnsworth is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor. She is a former editor of Masonry magazine.


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