by NATHANIEL NELSON
On a chilly fall afternoon, clad in a hardhat, Ben Provost holds a laser level above the ground on the site of Habitat for Humanity’s new home to check for irregularities before the new cement flooring is paved. But Provost isn’t a normal construction worker. He is one of 19 students in Minnesota State College Southeast’s (MSCS) new construction technology program, which has partnered with Habitat to help build its new space while giving students the chance to have on-site experience with what they learn in the classroom.
“This is a good project. It’s a good project for beginners. It’s big. It’s a challenge, but it’s commercial experience. Not a lot of groups are going to get commercial experience,” said John Powell, instructor for the construction technologies program.
The the class has been working on the brand new Habitat for Humanity building on North Baker Street. Habitat Executive Director Amanda Hedlund explained that the construction is not a hugely complicated one, but it’s an opportunity that many students don’t get to have. “The simple, affordable design is well-suited for learners,” she explained.
The new facility has three parts: the main office section and meeting room was completed earlier this year, with the organization moving in in June. The second section, which will become the new Re-Store, is entering its final phases of construction, as things like a new HVAC system and other contracted projects are introduced. The third section is the new donation and sales processing building, which is the section on which the students have been working.
Next fall, the program will return to build a classroom for Habitat volunteers to host classes on home repair. “There’s so much home maintenance people can take responsibility for if they just know where to start,” Hedlund said.
In January, Hedlund worked with Travis Thul, the dean of trade and technology at MSCS, to brainstorm ways for the two to partner together to provide a new opportunity for MSCS construction students, which led to the construction project going on today. “He was creative in thinking of innovative ways to bring the program into the new era,” Hedlund stated.
According to Hedlund, outside companies were just as thrilled about the program as the school itself. Many contractors will work directly with the students to teach them about different aspects of construction work, including roofing, concrete and laying steel.
“The contractors are very energized. These businesses are so interested in helping to interest students in that line of work,” she said.
This is the first year for the new program, Powell explained, which is focused on providing students either one- or two-year paths to finding employment in the construction industry. Students take classes in residential and commercial construction, blueprint reading, emerging construction technology and others, while also spending part of their time working on site.
Most of the students are just starting out, with a few having some past experience in construction, so being able to work directly on a project is a huge benefit to the students, Powell said. Many of them are visual learners, so replacing classroom time with on-site work only helps to build their knowledge of the process.
“[For example], we learned what a footing is, and the next week we poured one,” Powell said. “It’s such a simple structure, and introducing the principles of construction to them that early in their career is valuable.”
Over the course of constructing the new facility students will be able to practice and gain practical knowledge of a large array of different processes. “Student will virtually work on everything from the foundations to the roof,” Powell stated. In the spring, students will be able to reuse that knowledge again in the construction of a residential “tiny house,” the second of the program’s two large projects.
Powell said he is grateful to be able to work with Habitat for the new building, and the whole process isn’t something that programs like MSCS are usually able to do. Habitat volunteers pop in to fill in the gaps when students aren’t available, and vice versa, as the two groups provide support to get the project done in time.
“I don’t know how else we could have done a project like this as a school,” Powell said.
According to Hedlund, the groups are hoping to have the main construction done before snow begins to fall, and then students will work through the winter on interior projects. By next June, the new facility should be entirely open for business.