Building Skills, And a House
Students Lend Varied Talents To Create Model of 'Green' Home

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

This is the house that Victor built.

And Raul heated.

And Jose illuminated.

In a lesson plan that transcends textbooks, students at the Arlington Career Center have spent the past seven months building a small residential structure made entirely of recycled and sustainable materials.

Eventually, the scale-model house will go on display at parks, fairs and other public sites to serve as a lesson on environmentally friendly building. For now, as it sits in a school garage growing more complete by the day, it's an example of what can happen when students combine strengths.

"It showed the students we're all in this together," said Jerry Caputo, principal of the Career Center, a program of the Arlington County public school system. He said that on some nights, he has had to force students to stop working and go home.

"I see the students energized by this, I see the teachers energized by this, I see the community energized by this," he said. "That wouldn't be happening if they were all building their own birdhouses."

Instead, no single student or class can take credit for the project.

The carpentry students are putting up walls and hand-cutting rafters. The electricity students are installing solar panels. And the HVAC students are handling the heating and air-conditioning system.

Then there are the photography students who are documenting the work, the TV crew that is putting it into context and the engineering students who are monitoring the building's weight distribution to ensure it makes it out of the garage.

Hunter Slade, a commercial art student, designed the logo that will hang on a banner.

Hunter, a 17-year-old junior at Yorktown High School, has taken classes at the Career Center for two years. He said he initially came up with two designs for the logo. One was of a leaf, shaped to resemble a house. The other, the winning design, shows the hints of a roof and wall within a green circle.

"I hate when I see symbols that have too much stuff on it," Hunter said.

He and his teacher, Mike Lahr, said they might modify the logo to incorporate a leaf, but in a way that won't be distracting. Lahr said he has taught his students about the difficulty in making a design uncomplicated and memorable, such as the Nike swoosh or the bitten apple of a certain computer company.

Hunter, who said he aims for a career in golf but considers art his backup, said he recently spent three weeks creating a design for his favorite reggae band, only to find that he added so many elements he didn't like the end product.

"It just tells you, you can do something really simple and it mean a lot," Hunter said.

Increasingly, schools are aiming to get students to think green, not only to keep in step with a national movement but also to prepare them for the world they will work in.

At Charles Hart Middle School in the District, Elizabeth Davis's computer-aided design students are finalists waiting to see whether their vision for a "sustainable school of the future" will take top honors in a contest sponsored by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International and the National Association of Realtors. The students imagined a school with green roofs, low-flush toilets, occupant sensors, solar panels, windmills and a virtual-reality 3D classroom. The awards ceremony is April 30.

The house is being funded with a $12,500 grant through SkillsUSA, a nonprofit organization that works with teachers and students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations. It will run on solar energy, have a rain catcher and include an environmentally efficient toilet and sink. It will weigh less than 7,000 pounds and stand 10 feet high, 16 feet long and 9 feet wide.

On a recent weekday, carpentry students Victor Rodriguez and Chris Diethorn walked through the skeleton of the house, pointing out the plastic they used for the trim and the recycled wood that makes up the frame.

"It's been exciting," Victor said. "For a carpenter, framing is a fun thing. Just getting in there and hammering away."

Chris, 16, a junior at Washington-Lee, said he's struck by the bigger meaning behind the small house: "How the world's going green and how we could change it, how we could help it," he said.

Both students said they plan to use their skills after they graduate, and their teacher, Tony Del Gallo, said he's confident they are ready.

"Ninety percent of carpenters out there can't do hand-cut rafters; our guys can," Del Gallo said.

Jose Guardado, 20, is learning the ins and outs of solar panels -- a technology so new that his teacher, Manny Sanchez, said he has had to study alongside his students.

And HVAC student Raul Garcia, 17, will be installing a unit that is more complicated than most because it will be digitally controlled, said his teacher, Ricky Sullivan.

The house is expected to be completed by the fall. Requests from groups hoping to use it as an exhibit are rolling in, including one from Kansas, Caputo said.

As part of the final display, the work of another group of students will be highlighted. The TV and multimedia production class has created a public service announcement about the project and is working on a documentary that will run with the exhibit on a flat-screen TV.

A sort of " 'This Little House,' instead of 'This Old House,' " teacher John Woodhead said, referring to the home improvement TV show. He said that he has seen a high level of commitment from the students and that all have put in extra effort, knowing that their work will be seen outside the school. They see relevance in what they are doing, he said.

"So many teachers have to say, 'If we were going to build' or 'What if,' " Woodhead said. In this project, "they encounter real obstacles and then encounter real solutions for them."

"We're building a house," Caputo said. "We're not talking about building a house."

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