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Birtle Collegiate students learn to construct entire homes

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BIRTLE -- If the women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy, in the immortal words of Red Green.

That could also be the motto at Birtle Collegiate.

At the Grade 7-12 school in Birtle, 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, wood shops isn't just about making pen holders and jewelry boxes. High school students here actually build an entire 1,200-square-foot house.

And sell it. And someone lives in it.

"We start right from the floor. So we do the floor, doors, windows, walls, roof, shingling, siding, insulation and vapour barriers, drywall installation, painting and the trim work like baseboards and around the windows and doors," said shops teacher Larry Schroeder. "Last year, students learned how to install laminate flooring."

Talk about feeding 'em for a lifetime. "No matter where you go, you need houses," said Schroeder. Or else you live in one that needs fixing, oh, occasionally. "These are all skills so you can do your own repair work, or build a shed or garage," he said.

But getting grades 11 and 12 students to build a house that meets all building code and safety standards sounds harder than herding cats. Sometimes, Schroeder allows, trying to suppress a smile. "Kids try things and they might not get it right the first time. So there's more waste, like from cutting boards too short," he said.

The course fills a huge educational vacuum. In our increasingly specialist world, kids are growing up not knowing which end of the hammer to hit their thumb with (the No. 1 injury). "A number of students have never used tools before. Some haven't even used a tape measure," Schroeder said.

The house course is an elective and most female students take a pass. The male-female student ratio tends to be about 10 to 1. But the first female graduate, Breanna Cousins, also won the coveted Shank and Hammy Trophy -- a box cutter and hammer fastened to a wooden stake -- that goes to the program's top master builder. She is currently apprenticing on construction of the Prairie Lake Estate condos at Lake of the Prairies. "In this area, there's a demand for skilled trades," said Schroeder.

The satisfaction level is high among kids. Some may not excel in other courses but are star pupils when it comes to the 'measure twice, cut once' of construction. "Usually, when students take the course in Grade 11, they'll take it in Grade 12, too," said principal Dan Hardern.

"What you look for first (in terms of grading) is pride in their work," said Hardern. "If it's not right the first time, do it over and do it right. Don't do half-baked jobs."

Hardern said other schools have looked to copy the program but the difficulty is finding someone like Schroeder who has real-world experience as a journeyman carpenter as well as a bachelor's degree in education. Birtle's program was started by another carpenter, Dale Snyder, who now builds recreation properties on Lake of the Prairies.

Students build one home per year. The program, now in its sixth year, will complete its fifth home. It built two A-frame chalets initially.

Twin Valley Co-op in Birtle supplies the plans, materials, some equipment and pays the school a labour rate of $14 per square foot (about $17,000), which the school reinvests into the program. The co-op contracts out the plumbing, electrical and other work such as carpeting. It sells the Ready to Move homes and keeps the proceeds.

"I'd say this is probably better than the average class because your learning is hands-on," said student Stewart Salmon, 18. "In the future, if you ever want to build a house or put on an addition, now you'll have an idea."

Philip Blouin, 17, has already put course information into practice, erecting an interior wall, i.e., partition, inside the family garage. "It's pretty helpful," he said of the course.

Safety is a big part of the program, since the kids use table saws, skills saw, power drills and work from scaffolds and on roofs. Schroeder has to drill into students not only the importance of their individual safety but how their actions can impact the safety of fellow students.

W.C. Miller Collegiate in Altona is believed to be the only other school offering home construction but that is part of a vocational curriculum. About a dozen students participate in the shops class at Birtle Collegiate, which Hardern described as an average-sized rural school with 140 kids.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2013 B8

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