American College of the Building Arts

During my visit to Charleston last month, I took a tour of the American College of the Building Arts (featured in the latest issue of Preservation magazine).

One of the reasons I returned to school to study historic preservation was so I could have a career that didn’t require me to spend eight hours a day at a desk staring at a computer screen. I’ve learned a lot during my second stint here at the University of Florida, but it’s mostly been preservation theory — not much technical. Ever since Rudy Christian, a timber framer and  president of the Preservation Trades Network, spoke to us at Preservation Institute: Nantucket this summer, I’ve had this romantic plan of becoming a preservation carpenter despite my limited experience in the field. I sent away for materials from ACBA, liked what I saw, and arranged a tour for when I was in town.

The school is housed in the very imposing Old Charleston Jail, built in 1802 and undergoing a renovation some of which is being done by students. They have ghost tours there at night, and I’ve always wanted to  do one just to see what the jail looked like on the inside. Large cells serve as classrooms and workshops. Smaller ones are offices. Part of the old caretaker’s quarters is a library. Just an excellent example of adaptive use. Rosie Such, who is in charge of admissions, also drove me out to the school’s workshop on nearby James Island. This was where the timber framers and carpenters have their hands-on classes.

The school offers degrees in six areas: architectural stone, timber framing, carpentry, ironwork, plaster work, and masonry. ACBA awards bachelor’s and associate’s degrees as well as a one-year post-graduate certificate, which I would like to do. The school is relatively new; the first bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the spring.

I didn’t get the impression the recent graduates are faring too well in the job market. But that’s certainly not because there’s not a need for quality preservation craftspeople. In many cultures, passing down the intangible building techniques take precedence over preserving the physical object. There are signs Americans are capable of supporting quality craftsmanship with the current emphasis on sustainability. Of course, the greenest building is the one that’s already built. But when building new, why not build something that’s going to survive more than 50 years? There’s a reason timber-framed buildings hundreds of years old are still standing. There’s a reason lime mortar performs better than Portland cement on chimneys. There’s a reason plaster trumps drywall. ACBA and other schools like it are filling a sorely needed area in preservation and the building trades. Let’s hope their message catches on.

The Old Charleston Jail in 2007. It's now home to American College of the Building Arts.

The Old Charleston Jail in 2007. It’s now home to the American College of the Building Arts.

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