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Mark Hayward's City Matters: MST students hard at work on house #32

By MARK HAYWARD
January 13. 2017 9:39PM
Student Georgia Dubois carries a section of exterior siding for the house under construction in Manchester School of Technology's home-building class on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)



High school projects can be pretty cool things.

Depending on the class, students might carry out a scientific experiment, or create a work of art, maybe produce a video rendition of a literary classic.

Or build a house, even a neighborhood.

In what could only be described as one of the most challenging hands-on projects at any school, students in the building trades at Manchester School of Technology construct homes.

Kids too young to own a credit card have built 31 houses over the years, and they’re working on No. 32. Halfway complete, their potential project is the subject of an open house — named “Beyond the Sheetrock” — today from 10 a.m. to noon.

The house and 22 other student-built homes are on Stanton Street, a dead-end cul-de-sac that is a gallery of three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath senior projects.

“I don’t think you’ll find anybody on this street who is unhappy,” said Susan Brady, who lives a few doors down from the house now under construction. The Bradys bought their house 17 years ago.

The students are a welcome sight during the day, she said. And if Brady needs help with her house, she just calls MST. For example, when her kitchen space was too small for a new refrigerator, the students came over and reworked the space.

“They said that when we bought the home: ‘If there’s ever an issue, let us know,’” she said.

Classes are held daily at the unsided two-story structure.

At this point, the framing and exterior walls are up. Inside, a forest of vertical studs runs from a cold plywood floor to a yet-to-be installed ceiling.

Guts of the house — the circulatory system of electrical wires and PEX plumbing tubes — dangle, waiting to be connected, tested and then enclosed behind a skin of sheetrock.

One of the students is Georgia Dubois, a senior in the MST residential carpentry program. She plans to major in science in college, but wants to know her way around a construction site beforehand.

“I like to be a capable person, a fix-it person,” Dubois said. With construction experience, she hopes to land summer jobs that will help pay for her tuition. Most of the other students said they hoped to go into trades after school.

“We learn more here than in a classroom,” said Justin Cooperider, a Memorial High School student in the residential carpentry program.

Despite its impressive output, the building-trades program is struggling. It faces the same challenge felt by employers in fields from high tech to fast food: a people shortage.

Seventy students fill three building trades programs: residential carpentry, electrical technology and residential plumbing. That’s about half the capacity of 135. In years past the program had a waiting list, said Timothy Otis, the MST assistant principal who oversees the building trades programs.

“All over this country, there’s a great need for plumbing, electrical and builders,” he said. Otis, who started his job this year, said he can’t explain the drop in interest, other than a drop in the number of school-aged students overall.

With a shortage of people such as Dubois and Cooperider, MST hires contractors to do some of the work that students used to do. While the foundation has always been subcontracted out, professionals now handle the framing, roofing and drywalling.

Otis said buyers get a good house for the value.

Because the students aren’t paid, the school can splurge on luxuries: Vector recessed heating units, PEX piping, USB charging outlets, a lawn irrigation system, upgraded plumbing fixtures and a 240-volt charging outlet for an electric car.

Electrical students plan out the house’s circuits and install them. Their proud instructor, Russ Anthony, shows off the work, including a future kitchen with enough outlets to keep a McDonald’s in operation. None of the circuits will be overloaded, he said, and the breaker box could handle at least two dozen circuits.

Anthony said former students often stop by when they’re in the area. Many work for local contractors. A couple have started their own company. One is an inspector in a nearby town.

“They can’t do any better,” Anthony said. “I’ve got them out there making six figures in five years.”

City Matters runs Saturdays in the Union Leader. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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