Dismal market conditions have prompted many builders and trade contractors who previously specialized in new construction to explore alternative lines of work. Those enrolled in the preservation trades technology program at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pa., are hoping to add a few new skills that will open doors to building restoration projects. Roughly 60 students are currently enrolled in this program, which began in 2008 and is geared towards professionals already working in the building and construction industry. Classes are offered on weekends and at night so that students can continue to work full time and put their new knowledge immediately into practice.
Located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, the program was founded after local market surveys indicated a need for reliable and knowledgeable contractors to rehab many of the area’s historic homes. Research also found that many local builders were interested in cultivating restoration expertise.
While much of the building industry remains stagnant, demand for preservation expertise is growing, says Barry Loveland, chair of the school's preservation trades technology program advisory committee.
“I have heard anecdotally from people … that it is very difficult finding qualified contractors with the skills or knowledge to work on historic buildings,” he says. And as time goes on and more buildings become designated as historic structures, demand for these skills will only increase.
Urban revitalization efforts advocating adaptive reuse over new construction are also fueling the trend.
Amy Frick, a Washington, D.C.-area resident who is currently enrolled in the program and commutes to Lancaster once or twice a week, is hoping her coursework will lead to full-time employment in historic preservation. A carpenter by training, Frick has already developed a niche building small accessory structures out of salvaged materials – some of which are up to 300 years old. For clients with limited budgets, she also designs and builds historically inspired structures that blend newer, less expensive products with reclaimed windows, roofing materials, and hardware. "I build small structures for a living here, [such as] sheds and playhouses, so I can continue doing my work while taking classes,” she says.
So far the restoration program has proven complementary to Frick's small business. “Whatever I'm learning in preservation carpentry classes goes directly into my work immediately,” she says. “So even though my work is not preservation carpentry per se, I'm using and working with the old materials in exactly the same way they were used originally, only on a smaller scale.”
The curriculum at Thaddeus Stevens includes 13 classes that are 18 hours long. Each student must complete six courses before receiving a certificate of completion. Required core classes include fundamentals of historic preservation, history of Pennsylvania architecture, and Pennsylvania building technology. Once these prerequisites are met, students may narrow their focus to masonry or carpentry for the remaining three classes. The curriculum can be completed in about a year.
Courses combine classroom workshops with field work throughout Lancaster County. An arrangement between the technical college and the city of Lancaster allows students to work on foreclosed properties to hone their new skills and restore buildings for public use.
At present, roughly 48% of students are attending the training program expense-free--including tuition, room, and board--by way of 19 grants and scholarships available through the school.
A two-year accredited technical school, Thaddeus Stevens has also partnered with the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board, which covers about 60% of the tuition for students who are simultaneously employed in Lancaster County.
This program is the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania and is one of 13 in the country dedicated specifically to historic preservation trades education.
Jessica Porter is an editorial intern at BUILDER magazine.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Lancaster, PA.