Reaching for the sky
Building trades students work on the roof.
Shawn Brown, left, and Zach Bilodeau set a truss at the house being built by the ConVal/Conant Building Trades Program. Both student attend Conant High School.
Building trades program students install sheathing on the roof.
From left, Conant students Zach Bilodeau, Shawn Brown (white hat), Ben Sproul and Tim Dupuis place roof sheathing.
JAFFREY — Fifteen students from Conant and ConVal high schools are getting hands-on construction experience, as they work to build a 1,650-square-foot custom cape home, with a breezeway and an attached garage, at a lot on Sawtelle Road.
The house, which will become the home of Jaffrey resident Joel Weissman, is this year’s project for the Conant/ConVal Building Trades Program, which is in its second year of being run out of Conant High School in Jaffrey. The program is part of the Applied Technology Center 14, based at ConVal High School, and serves students at both Conant and ConVal.
The program works like this: Residents in the ConVal and Conant area who are interested in having a house built by the program contact Conant High School to make their interest known, and the Building Trades Advisory Committee picks the most appropriate project for the upcoming year. The applicant pays for all the building materials, and makes a contribution to a charitable trust which funds the Building Trades program and, in return, the students get the opportunity to learn about building a house from the ground up — literally.
It is run by Steve Riggs, who for 23 years supervised a similar program at Mascenic High School for students from Mascenic, ConVal and Conant. Riggs retired briefly after the Mascenic-based program ended when Mascenic left the Applied Technology Center 14. But a year later, he came back to work. “I was asked to start up a new program,” he said on Monday. “Last year, we did the Greenfield Historical Society’s barn. This year we’re doing a custom house. We have a licensed plumber and licensed electrician and they have time to work with the kids. That’s one of the strengths of the program.”
The students — eight from Conant and seven from ConVal — meet at the site during the first two blocks of the school day. Three of them are in their second year with the program. “They wear the white hats,” Riggs said, referring to the hard-hat color traditionally worn by job supervisors. “They are given leadership roles. I call them my veterans.”
One of those veterans is Shawn Brown, 17, of Jaffrey, a senior at Conant. One of his favorite aspects of the class is the way it gives him the chance to encounter possible issues and work them out on his own, he said in an interview Monday. “I like the fact that we get to learn on our own,” Brown said. “We get to figure out problems, and we get hands-on the whole time.”
His fellow senior and job supervisor, Sean Perreault, 17, of Temple, said that even though the second-year students also receive direction from Riggs, they have more responsibility than the first-year Building Trades students. “We’re like the middleman. We have to have a better understanding of what Steve Riggs is telling us than the other students,” he said. “You get to be the boss for a little while. It also puts a little more pressure on you to make sure you’re doing everything right.”
But for Perreault, who plans to attend college or a technical school and study construction management, the extra responsibility is a taste of what he’ll be aspiring to as an adult in the working world, and he said the experience is invaluable.
The class is structured to give the kids as much experience with all the different aspects of house building as possible. When the students arrive on the job site at the beginning of the day, they’re assigned a group and a job, whether it’s framing or roofing or some other task, and set to work.
The class has 16 students, many of whom come in with little to no experience in a construction field. It’s not as intimidating as one might think to be in that situation and suddenly faced with the task of building a house, said Brown. “It’s a lot of little steps. It’s not too overwhelming. You complete it step by step and the house just forms,” he said. “It’s not as hard as you would think, although there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Conant Junior Zachary Bilodeau, 16, of Rindge agreed, saying the Building Trades program is a case of many hands making light work. “You don’t feel overwhelmed because there’s so many other kids out there. You feel like you don’t have to do it by yourself,” said Bilodeau.
“We all have a different job everyday,” said Bilodeau. “I like it all.”
Unlike many students of the class, Bilodeau came into the class with a summer’s worth of construction experience under his belt . Building in a class setting is very different, he said, it’s better. “You learn all the formulas,” he said. “You learn how to do it right. You learn a lot more.”
Getting a taste of a variety of skills is important to Bilodeau, he said, because although he wants to go into construction after high school he’s undecided about which branch of the field he wants to specialize in.
Brown agreed with Bilodeau about the value of rotating skills, but he does have a favorite. “Framing, absolutely. I love framing,” he said. “You get to see the progress that you’re making. I feel very accomplished at the end of the day when I get to look at my work.”
Conant Junior Tyler Deiana, 17, of Jaffrey said he enjoys being in a learning environment that gets him outside of the classroom.
“I like being outside. Putting the roofing and sheeting up, the fact that you get to be up high and learn new things, it’s just a cool experience,” Deiana said. “It’s way more fun than sitting in a classroom.”
Working outside isn’t always a good thing, though, Perreault said. Learning in an outdoor environment means the students need to be prepared for working in less than ideal weather sometimes.
e_SDLqYou have to deal with the weather, and dress a little warmer. An indoor classroom is a controlled environment, you know what to expect,” said Perreault. “Outside, you’re open to other conditions, and you have to be adaptable. It’s more difficult to work in the snow or rain. It’s a higher level of risk.”
Those are things the students will have to get used to, though, if they plan on making a career out of construction.
“I want this for a career,” said Deiana. “It’s a great experience to have this class. I’m learning things that will be good to know in the future. It’s pretty awesome.”
Riggs said the house is being sheathed this week, and trim and shingling will go in starting next week.
“I love this program. I have a group of exceptional kids this year. They’re learning a lot, and having a great time doing it,” Riggs said. “I couldn’t ask for better.”