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Carpentry students turning vacant house into an arts center

Blue Hills Regional teacher Richard McDonough (left) guides students converting a century-old home into a new town arts center in Braintree.

Photos by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Blue Hills Regional teacher Richard McDonough (left) guided students converting a century-old home into a new town arts center in Braintree.

With help from carpentry students at Blue Hills Regional Technical School, Braintree is converting a vacant old home on Washington Street into a town arts center.

Officials from the school and the town see benefits for both sides of the bargain. Students are getting real-world carpentry experience, and Braintree is converting the building for just pennies on the dollar.

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The work is proceeding on schedule and if things continue that way, the students will have the building ready for insulation and sheetrock crews to go to work during April vacation. Then, they’ll install the interior trim and replace doors and windows.

With a bit of luck, the arts center will be ready by the summer.

The school takes on construction projects each year that provide students hands-on experience in exchange for low-cost labor in participating communities.

Blue Hills carpentry teacher Richard McDonough says every project they take on has its own challenges. Students have renovated and expanded homes in Canton and Dedham, built a handicapped-access ramp for a former student in Avon, and demolished and replaced a shack next to the football field on the high school’s Canton campus.

This year’s project is a two-story Colonial on Washington Street, adjacent to the Highlands Community Playground in Braintree. The town acquired the property years ago, but hasn’t been able to put it to good use.

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Robert Foley, who like McDonough teaches carpentry and oversees the students working on projects, said that on a typical job like this, the property owner buys the materials and pays 25 percent of the cost of the materials to the school for labor, “a substantial savings to the owner.”

Foley has been teaching carpentry at Blue Hills for six years. He said he has worked as a carpenter for his whole professional life, doing everything from running his own residential construction business to working as a project manager building roads and bridges.

Foley said teaching is the most rewarding work he has done, because he “can help make tomorrow better.”

Blue Hills Regional Vocational Technical High School students carried a cut piece of plywood off sawhorses.

John Tlumack/Globe staff

Blue Hills Regional Vocational Technical High School students carried a cut piece of plywood off sawhorses.

“Seeing a kid get a concept,” said Foley, “it’s priceless.” Smiling at a group of student-workers, Foley pointed to them and added, “It’s great. There’s our future, today.”

Each school year since 1968, students have worked on a construction project in one of the nine communities — Avon, Braintree, Canton, Dedham, Holbrook, Milton, Norwood, Randolph and Westwood — in the Blue Hills Regional district.

Every project is different, but students most often are building a new house, or an addition to an existing building. Renovating a 100-year-old house, like this year’s project, is unusual, and gives students the opportunity to learn how to marry new work with old, and how homes were framed in the days before pneumatic hammers, electric drills, and engineered lumber.

Foley calls it “a really cool project” because of the technical challenges of renovating an old structure, and the civic aspect of working on a town building.

Brendan Dacey, 17, of Dedham cut a piece of plywood for a floor section. Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Brendan Dacey, 17, of Dedham cut a piece of plywood for a floor section. Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki

Technology like power tools makes the crew’s work a little easier, but the job still demands effort, skill, and the ability to plan. Braintree’s building inspector required the students to reinforce the existing floor structure, and the new design required that walls be moved and floor loads be redistributed.

The town had the building gutted, disconnected the electricity, gas, and water, and “then turned it over to us,” said McDonough, adding, “We work with the . . . building inspector to make sure everything is fully compliant.”

McDonough, who has also taught high school chemistry and physics, has been teaching carpentry at the vocational school for seven years. He has worked as a carpenter in one capacity or another all his life, and still builds homes during summer break.

“We teach the kids to keep it clean and safe and do things the absolute, 100 percent right way,” McDonough said as he watched a crew pull nails from the old, rough subflooring, sweep it, and vacuum it in preparation for another layer of 5/8-inch plywood, a fastidious level of care he insists on and one not often seen on other job sites.

“This is our classroom five hours a day,” explained McDonough, “but it’s also a real job site.” The building has no plumbing, is unheated, and is missing an exterior door and several windows, so conditions can be uncomfortable.

The students take just a 20- to 25-minute lunch break each day, and have to remember to bring food with them or waste time and money buying something. “We talk to them about eating right, too,” said Foley.

The teachers are more than traditional classroom instructors; they’re coaches who show as well as tell students about new concepts, and physically demonstrate the intangibles.

One challenge facing the crew will be carefully removing a delicate old railing on the stairs so that nearby structural members can be reinforced. Then the railing will be reinstalled, and, if all goes as planned, no one will be able to tell.

When the weather improves, they’ll build a handicapped-access ramp on the back of the building, new front stairs, and repair some of the damaged vinyl siding.

Foley said Blue Hills encourages property owners to buy their materials from local suppliers, when possible.

McDonough said gaining experience on the job is invaluable, and will help his students with getting jobs after graduation.

“Ninety percent of working carpenters today are gray-hairs,’’ he said. “The replacements for those guys are in vocational schools right now, which are the best deal going, in my opinion.’’

Foley added: “We give these kids an employability edge.”

The school tries to help students with job placement after graduation. McDonough recalled a student whom he had placed and “four years later, he is working as a lead carpenter.” The former student “just bought his first house,” McDonough said.

These students don’t leave their skills and their tools at school.

Alexis Gallant, 17, of Holbrook, recently pitched in on her parents’ kitchen remodeling job by tearing out the cabinets.

“It was no big deal,” she said, as she installed a new subfloor on the first floor of Braintree’s future arts center.

Foley and McDonough say some of their students plan to work in the trades after graduation, and others haven’t decided yet, but the majority will go on to college. Both teachers were quick to point out that the on-the-job experience will benefit students regardless of their next steps.

“We’re giving them life skills,” said McDonough. “One of these days they’re going to own a home and they’re going to have to know how to take care of it.”

“By the time our juniors graduate, the economy will be back as good as ever,’’ Foley added. “Employers will be beating down our door for workers.”

Jim Morrison can be reached at james­andrewmorrison@gmail.com.

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