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A unique college for the Building Arts

In Charleston, a city famous for its historic buildings, students can earn degrees in the traditional skills that enable them to restore architectural heritage around the world
BY Uma Asher |   25-10-2016

Many Indians go to the US for higher studies in engineering, the sciences, medicine, and business management. Some pursue degrees in the social sciences, humanities, or arts. Starting 2018, a truly unusual degree option is likely to become available – building arts.
 

ACBA student Daniella Helline paints a wall in a 208-year-old building, using a traditional type of paint called calcimine, mixed by hand to match the original color as determined by a paint analysis (ACBA photo, used with permission)

What are building arts?

The American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) in Charleston, South Carolina, offers a curriculum that seeks to integrate general education courses with craft specializations such as architectural carpentry, architectural stone work, forged architectural ironwork, masonry, plasterwork, and timber framing. The college seeks to set professional standards in these arts. Its graduates work in different parts of the world, applying their skills at historic castles and cathedrals.

“We are the only college in the world that combines a liberal arts and sciences education with hands-on training that results in a bachelor’s degree,” Mrs. Lucas Adams, ACBA’s Director of Admissions and Educational Services, told BrainGain Magazine in an email interview. ACBA does not currently accept international students, she says, and adds, “We anticipate opening [it] up to the world in 2018.”

ACBA’s mission is to educate artisans in traditional building arts, foster exceptional craftsmanship, and encourage the preservation, enrichment and understanding of the world’s architectural heritage through a liberal arts education.  

In 1989, a hurricane caused unprecedented destruction in historic Charleston, a city famous for its architectural heritage. There were not enough skilled artisans to repair and restore the city’s cherished iron, plaster and wooden structures, and its masonry and stone works. People trained in traditional building arts were few, and their skills were dying. This led to creation of the non-profit School of the Building Arts in 1999. It gained college status and became the ACBA in 2005.

ACBA president Colby M. Broadwater III says in his preface to the course catalog that the college’s graduates are “exceptionally skilled building artisans” whose combination of education and training lets them “serve as leaders in preserving America’s past and building significant structures worth preserving for the future.”

 
Above: Students work on a decorative panel (still from video by Vladia Jurcova-Spencer)
 
Above: Ironwork (still from video by Vladia Jurcova-Spencer)
 
Above: Traditional masonry freshmen practice bricklaying (ACBA photo, used with permission)


What should students expect?

ACBA offers an alternative to traditional apprenticeships with its combination of classroom instruction with group or individual work in the shop or studio during the academic year, and three summer internships.  It is a four-year degree program, and as in any other college, assessment is based on test grades, assignments, portfolios, and projects, among other things. Full-time tuition is around $20,000 per year, plus another $2,000 for studio fee, tools, and books. Housing and meals cost extra.

Students learn design and drawing principles, research and documentation skills, communication, math and science, history and culture, critical thinking and reasoning, ethics, collaborative skills, and leadership. Some examples of general education course offerings are Architecture and Society, Principles of Accounting, Literature and Composition, Historic Preservation Philosophy and Principles, Trigonometry, Architectural Computer Graphics, and Architectural Drawing.

Broadwater describes the college’s location in the city of Charleston, famous for its beautiful colonial architecture, as a “living classroom”. Until recently, the college was housed in a historic jail, built in 1802, and students got plenty of hands-on training by working on their campus. Local historic houses and nearby plantations are also used as a laboratory for restoration work.

 
ACBA’s Class of 2016 poses in front of the 200-year-old jail that served as the campus until recently. Faculty and students helped restore the historic building (ACBA photo, used with permission)


This year, the campus moved to a new location, which was formally inaugurated on October 20. Of course, ‘new’ is a relative term, as ACBA’s current home – the Trolley Barn, a former operations and maintenance facility for streetcars – is 119 years old.

Adams says the college created three storeys in the one-story structure. “It's pretty amazing,” she says. “As much as we all loved the old jail, the Trolley Barn suits our needs so much better.” It’s a testament to ACBA’s uniqueness, because, after all, not every college official can say something like this and make perfect sense.

“We currently have about 60 students total,” says Adams, adding that half of these are freshmen. “Our numbers have grown significantly in the last three years.”

 
On October 20, ACBA inaugurated its ‘new’ campus - the renovated 119-year-old Trolley Barn (ACBA photo, used with permission)


What can you do with the degree?

The ACBA’s degrees are recognized by the government (read more about recognition here). Since 2004, ACBA has been licensed to grant Bachelor’s and Associate degrees by the South Carolina government authority that oversees the state’s 33 public institutions of higher learning. The school says it is also seeking  accreditation through the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. This commission is a private, non-profit organization, recognized by the US Department of Education as an independent accrediting agency.

Adams says ACBA graduates go on to a wide variety of jobs. “Some work for architect and engineering firms, big and small companies, and some go into business for themselves.” She adds that 96% of ACBA students have jobs before they graduate. “Many times, internships turn into job opportunities.”

Data on the earning potential of ACBA graduates is not available, but the latest US government labor statistics indicate that, for example, the median wage for a brick mason is over $66,000 a year, going up to $80,000 for an experienced mason.

Students are working on projects such as the restoration of a Gothic-style cathedral in England and a 16th-century German castle damaged by Russian soldiers in the 1940s. Graduates have also found work at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and at the Coubertin Foundation, an advanced building arts academy near Paris.

 

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