Deconstructing Stigmas

A new project by the National Center for Craftsmanship values working with your hands

Article published in The Rocky Mountain Chronicle Feb 14. 2008 — By Michael Pool

An important aspect is evaporating from today’s workforce: Over forty years of intense focus on college as the defining route to success has helped create a shortage of skilled craftsmen around the country. One Fort Collins-based nonprofit organization hopes to begin correcting that oversight soon.

Neil Kaufman and Robb Sommerfeld started The National Center for Craftsmanship (NCC) in 2005 in response to a nearly forty-year declining trend in the number of skilled craftsmen in America’s labor force. Kauffman has more than twenty years of experience in the construction industry, including five teaching construction management at Colorado State University, where Sommerfeld assisted him as a graduate student. For both men, top priority at the NCC has become sustainability.

“The concept of sustainability is embedded into all aspects of our approach, from sustaining high-quality craftsmanship to conserving materials,” says Sommerfeld, who teaches industrial technology at Berthoud High School. In his time at the head of the classroom, Sommerfeld feels he’s seen firsthand the roots of the craftsman decline.

“For some reason, there’s still the stigma that if you work with your hands, you’re less intelligent. It just isn’t true. I’ve seen so many students who lose their academic drive, but when you teach them to work using their hands, not only are they still using their minds, but they can also look at their work and say, ‘I built this,’ and that motivates them. What we’re looking at is trying to show those students that there are other viable career paths available. We want to ake the connection between them and craftsmen in the community.”

The NCC’s first major endeavor is scheduled to begin February 15. Dubbed the Deconstruct Training Program, it’s a reflection of their broader aspirations toward changing society’s mindset on the importance of working with your hands.

“Until we started the NCC, there was no national organization focused on the ‘crisis’ looming as the single biggest threat to our industry — a shortage of qualified workers,” Kauffman says. “With an increasing emphasis on sustainability and green building, it made sense that we could provide much-needed educational opportunities and show future developers and building personnel that a significant amount of the materials in these and other buildings could be reused or recycled.”

Through the Deconstruct Training Program, the NCC seeks to break down rather than demolish old structures and, in the process, salvage any reusable materials instead of allowing them to go to waste. While deconstruction has been used as a “green” technique in various capacities for the past twenty or so years, the NCC’s approach is new in that it will also train the volunteer-based work crews in the methods of construction through the process of deconstruction.

The program will involve the deconstruction of three houses located in southeastern Fort Collins. Local developer Les Kaplan and Imago Enterprises have donated the three houses on Lady Moon Drive, the location for the project. Originally, the houses were going to be torn down and hauled to the landfill, until Kaplan and the NCC found each other just over a year ago at a New Year’s Eve party.

“I believe there is a lot of value in these houses being used as a kind of school,” Kaplan says.

The NCC anticipates that approximately one hundred teens and one hundred adults from around the community will participate in the project. Other community support includes a $4,000 discretionary grant from the Larimer County Solid Waste Department for keeping materials out of the landfill, various donations from private citizens, and a full statistical breakdown of materials salvaged and financial gains, provided by graduate students at CSU at the end of the project.

The idea is to use the profits accrued to fund additional deconstructions in the future, so that the Deconstruct Training Program becomes a self-sustaining enterprise. Available opportunities throughout the project range from simply volunteering once to enrollment in classes that will teach specific skills for a donation of about $20. Though most demolitions take about three weeks, the NCC has allotted a month for each house. Sommerfeld says this should allow adequate time for the project to really jump-start the paradigm shift they hope to achieve.

“If it takes less time, that’s great,” he says. “But above all else, we want to give people the opportunity to really experience the project and learn from it for the future.”

For more information on the National Center for Craftsmanship and the Deconstruct Training Program, visit nccraftsmanship.org.

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