Today's generation of builders need the skills to build 21st century homes - which is why Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology students this year have been building an eco-home on campus.
The institute's first sustainable building project - in partnership with Hybrid Homes and Living and Corru Gate Accommodation - was the largest and most ambitious ever done by NMIT's pre-trade carpentry students. While it's smiles all round now, it's clear it was a massive undertaking.
NMIT carpentry tutors, Welsh-born Huw Morgan and Scottish-born Eddie Shields, have been at the heart of the project. It's been their job to get a class of 24 students with little or no building experience to produce a high-quality sustainable home with complex detailing, on budget and on time - while grappling with all the usual challenges that working with young people brings, from literacy and numeracy issues to financial worries, motivation and sports injuries.
"There's a lot of pastoral care involved in teaching," says Huw. "When you work in industry, everything is black and white. When you work in education, you realise there are all these shades of grey."
Most students starting out on the carpentry pre-trade course today have had little opportunity to gain practical skills.
"A lot of them don't know how to use a cordless drill, saw a piece of wood or have any knowledge of building terminology," says Huw.
"If an experienced carpenter's skill level is at a 10, I'd say about a third of our students come in with no skills, a third would come in with skills at about level two and the top students would be fours or fives."
In the past, NMIT's carpentry students have built two bedroom 50 square metre houses. This Kowhai-design Ekohome had three bedrooms plus study, two bathrooms and was more than double the size at 117sqm.
It wasn't just the extra floor size that added to the challenge - it was the high ceilings, the complex detailing, the extra tools, equipment, scaffolding, materials - and of course the teaching and labour time required. Although the NMIT course runs from February to November, in reality students only had about 1.3 days a week to work on the project as the rest of their time is spent working in industry, on other building projects or completing theory.
Five students left the course early to take up apprenticeships. Such was time pressure, that students devoted hundreds of hours working on the house unpaid during their semester breaks.
"People come to a tertiary provider to learn so they don't have the pressure you get in industry when you make a mistake. With this project, they had pressure, they had timeframes and real clients coming in," says Huw.
The Cook Strait earthquakes mid-year provided some additional excitement - as the house was only sitting on temporary piles.
"We quickly cleared the site and luckily there was no damage, but the walls rippled like paper - I thought I was having a funny moment!"
Of the 24 students who started the course, 22 will graduate later this month and most have already found jobs in industry.
A survey done at the end found that most appreciated working on a real project although they didn't enjoy the cold morning starts (8am) or working in the rain.
"Overall, most enjoyed watching it grow from the piles to the last bit of skirting. They felt like it gave them better knowledge of building a house and they could see the sequence of how things were done," says Huw.
For student Matt Buckingham, the course, the house project and the tutors were all "superb".
"You're not just in the classroom all year - it's real-life. I liked the fact there was so much variation and the group environment was really good."
Fellow student Chrissy Sumby - the only woman in a class of mostly young blokes - says she has enjoyed the chance to learn about sustainable building techniques as well as being able to put into practice the theory she was learning straight away by working on the house.
"The tutors here are fantastic. We also learn from each other and we've had the chance to take up different roles on the building site like acting as site foreman for a week."
And despite some heart-stopping moments getting the house transported - it required the largest crane in Nelson and cleared the Appleby Bridge with just centimetres to spare, owners Roger Waddell and Adele Smith of Corru Gate Accommodation in Mapua say they wouldn't change a thing.
"We've enjoyed working with NMIT and Hybrid Homes and Living and being a part of the process from whoa to go," says Adele.
"It was fantastic to watch the students develop and to be a part of things like the roof party. The students have been amazing - focused and interested. It's been a true three-way partnership."
Roger and Adele both have backgrounds in education and Roger has previously worked as a sustainability advisor.
"Our hope is that this project has a viral quality to it - that students will spread the sustainability message out into industry," says Roger. "For us, this is not a money-driven thing. It's very much a social enterprise and it feels really good to have been part of that."
Natalia Harrington of Hybrid Homes and Living says from their perspective, the project has gone very smoothly.
"Working with the NMIT team has been incredible - they are such a great bunch of guys. We've also enjoyed interacting with the students through the workshops we ran and the chance to promote sustainable building techniques to a new generation of builders.
"It's great that NMIT has the foresight to see where things in the building industry are heading and has chosen to partner with us."
NMIT and Hybrid Homes plan to build another house together for 2014 - albeit with a few changes such as a smaller, simpler design and Hybrid Homes handling the sub-contractors.
The last word has to go to Huw Morgan. "Projects like these are great philosophy-wise and marketing wise.
"They're also bloody hard work. Building a house like this is as close as you can get to actual industry experience - and that's our job, to form the link between education and industry.
"The students have done a marvellous job - they should be very proud of what they've achieved."
The home will be used as tourist accommodation at Mapua, and will be called Copper Gate.
When not occupied by guests, Copper Gate will be available as a show home for eco-design.
The house is a Hybrid Homes and Living Ekohome modular design. Hybrid Homes supplied the kit for the students to build.
Its eco features include: high levels of insulation high performance double glazing high efficiency LED lighting photovoltaic (8.5kW) solar panels Douglas fir framework and low VOC materials water and energy efficient fittings
- Sarah Ryder is a Nelson-based freelance writer and works part-time at NMIT; firstname.lastname@example.org
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