This story appeared in the May issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door monthly? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
This spring, the familiar sounds of buzzing saws and pounding hammers have emanated from a small construction site in Tremé as the new build of a one-story house quickly progressed. The lot, at the corner of St. Philip and N. Galvez streets, is owned by the Preservation Resource Center and will soon feature an affordable home for a New Orleans family. The most surprising aspect of its construction, though, is the young crew — high school students working as apprentices with unCommon Construction — leading the project.
UnCommon Construction is a local nonprofit that empowers high school students with workforce training through the build process. The model is unique: local students apply for the program, and once accepted, a diverse team of student apprentices work for a semester to build a house while earning hourly pay and school internship credit. On site, the students lead construction teams of adult volunteers, who typically work in the construction industry.
“The way we engage with volunteers is aiming for a higher impact between our apprentices and whomever they’re sharing the job site with,” said Aaron Frumin, unCommon Construction’s executive director who founded the organization in 2015. “Our ideal volunteers are construction companies, architecture firms, material suppliers,” he said. “Those groups will come out on Saturdays and spend a full day on a build site working under the leadership of our apprentices.”
It’s a win-win for students. The apprenticeship program focuses on developing leadership skills, which turns program graduates into competitive hires for the workforce. The apprentices lead volunteer teams, which are composed of strategic partners who also work in the construction industry. The build sessions then double as valuable networking opportunities that can lead directly to employment after graduation from the apprenticeship program.
Photo by Gigsy
The PRC has partnered with unCommon Construction to build an affordable house on the PRC-owned lot at 2200 St. Philip St. The project broke ground in January, and is scheduled to be completed by the end of June. PRC and unCommon Construction worked with Perez Architects to design the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with 1,300 square feet.
The design of the house on St. Philip differs slightly from unCommon Construction’s usual model. Materials, colors and windows were carefully selected to reflect the surrounding historic neighborhood.
“For the most part, we’re able to take our model and adapt it around whatever the project is,” Frumin said. Their original house model was designed with architects at Concordia, through design charrettes with unCommon’s student apprentices. A second model is in the works with Trapolin-Peer Architects.
For apprentices, working with the PRC also has been a unique learning opportunity, Frumin said. The apprentices participate in industry exchanges and field trips throughout the semester, and have taken two so far with the PRC. The first was to PRC’s headquarters on Tchoupitoulas Street, where students “learned about the history and the role that PRC plays in the community, the advocacy work and why it matters to have an organization like PRC,” Frumin said. “The second was a neighborhood historic architecture tour in the neighborhood where we’re building the house.”
“What’s really exciting about our partnership with the PRC is that by coming together for this project, unCommon didn’t have to buy the land,” Frumin added. Since the PRC owns the lot, Frumin explained, unCommon Construction was able to focus on other mission-driven costs, such as paying its apprentices and providing a scholarship match to apprentices who meet an attendance requirement.
“Our young people at unCommon are claiming power through the acquisition of skills, but our kids don’t work for free. Skill and labor has value and deserves to be compensated fairly,” Frumin said, adding that all apprentices are paid above minimum wage and work as W2 employees for unCommon Construction.
The construction of the affordable house at 2200 St. Philip is nearing completion as the semester draws to a close. On May 4, unCommon Construction will host an end-of-semester promotion ceremony to recognize its apprentices for a job well done. The ceremony will be followed by a crawfish boil and apprentice-led tours through the house. Learn more here.
UnCommon Construction is supported in part by The Phyllis Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University, and several Tulane students conduct their service learning requirements through the social innovation program at the center.
Photos by Gigsy
Davis “Dee” Allen is PRC’s Communications Associate and a staff writer for Preservation in Print.