UKIAH, CA, 12/8/22 — When Jose Quiñones came to Mendocino College to register his teenage daughter for classes, an Introduction to the Construction Trades class in the course catalog caught his eye. Quiñones works at a local printing and packaging company, and bought a house a couple years back. He wanted to learn how to accomplish projects around his home, specifically remodeling a shed out back into a studio for his kids.
Since August, he’s spent 15 full Saturdays at the college, learning hands-on in the free, non-credit, single-semester certification class offered by the Sustainable Construction and Energy Technology program. The program’s name may seem oxymoronic (the building and constructions sector contributed to around 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions globally in 2018), but coordinator and instructor Noel Woodhouse aims to teach students — whether hobbyists, professionals, or somewhere in between — to be responsible and knowledgeable in the “inherently toxic” industry by avoiding waste, focusing on quality work, and exploring innovative methods.
Last Saturday, before receiving their end-of-semester certificates, students cut two-by-fours from a fallen tree with a portable sawmill and learned to shingle roofs on test structures (which future classes can strip and re-shingle). Just a few years ago, this corner of campus was essentially a dumping ground for the college’s detritus. But the program’s ambitious effort to clear the space both revitalized curricular capabilities and opened things up to show off former construction projects, including rainwater catchment and solar hot water systems built by students.
“Besides working on our own facilities, we work with the Ag Department on small building projects, we plan on building props for the Fire Sciences program, we are building storage sheds for the Lake Center, and always looking to partner with other programs,” Woodhouse explained. “Our classes take field trips to job sites and do some off-site work and tours.”
Woodhouse grew up in Willits working for builders and “loved it,” he told The Mendocino Voice. Construction paid his way through college, but he wanted more from his working life. He learned about architecture and sustainable building concepts when he studied green building at Laney College, a community college in Oakland.
“I was trying to figure out what to do with all of it, and I decided I wanted to come back here,” he said. “That’s where I knew I could implement it.”
Mendocino College was establishing its construction program at the time, so Woodhouse helped to shape the curriculum while also teaching in local high schools. Today, the program offers three certificates in Construction, Renewable Energy, and Building Efficiency & Performance.
Jesus Alvarez, who’s taking this course for the second time, met Woodhouse when he taught at Alverez’s high school and recalled, “I just fell in love with the course.”
In fact, students often return to the course or try other courses in the program, due in part to a hands-on approach to learning a variety of trades. Woodhouse instructs this introductory class with Will McCoy, a builder who spends his weekdays working for Mackey Construction. They met when McCoy was working on several building projects on campus, including clearing the area now used for construction classes.
“Will is like, the revelation that happened in this program a couple of years ago,” Woodhouse said. “He’s the one that’s got all the fresh knowledge, is doing it all week. Having that, and then also being a good teacher and being able to share it, isn’t very common. People normally do one or the other.”
McCoy sees the introductory class, which is 10% classroom instruction and 90% learning on machines and building projects, as a needed injection of energy and efficiency into construction work. Older builders are often reticent to teach young workers on the job, he explained, and young people rarely come in with valuable experience.
“I’m trying to be that glue in the middle being like, ‘No, you all do need to pass this knowledge down to the new guys, so that they can build good stuff,’” he explained. He also sees the program as giving people in the community who might want to pursue construction work a serious leg up. Speaking to Jonathan Dyer, a high school student at Willits Charter School who received his certificate that day and hopes to land a construction job, he said, “A lot of guys are going out there looking for jobs, and some of them don’t have experience or tools or just the work ethic. My guy here, I know you’ve got tools. And he’s got work ethic. And he’s got experience. And he shows up every day on time and smiles. So that right there is 85% of the battle.”
For McCoy, giving people the tools to do high quality work that stands the test of time and vary their skill set is a key piece of sustainability.
“I’m starting to see the mind shift change on what they view as construction,” he said. “I’m trying to teach [them] how to be the jack of all trades. For example, this tree fell down out back: let’s go turn it into two-by-fours and build a garage.”
Woodhouse agrees, and emphasizes the importance of using materials that might otherwise be discarded: most recently, a guest instructor taught a lesson on natural building, making adobe bricks from dirt and hay. He hopes that more “alternative techniques” such as this will become a mainstay of the program in the future — especially with classes expanding into Lake County, and Covelo and Fort Bragg expressing interest, too.
“A lot of our local communities would like to be offering those classes,” he said. “It comes down to having good instructors who know their stuff, but are also willing to teach. Those are always conversations I’m happy to have.”
Woodhouse also hopes to make the program bilingual and fully accessible to English Language Learners. He said a number of instructors speak Spanish, and English as a Second Language instructors and a Spanish tutor are available for support as well.
“We strive to make our classes a safe and fun learning environment for people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and all walks of life,” he said.
In the meantime, next semester’s spate of classes will start up January 17 — including for-credit classes on clean technology, efficient heating and cooling, and residential electric work; natural building workshops throughout the semester; and the non-credit Introduction to The Construction Trades Certificate Program in Ukiah and Lakeport. Some current students have already registered.
“They’re really informative,” said Kevin Vasquez, a student who’s spent years working in concrete and hoped to expand his repertoire with the introductory course. “They know what they’re talking about. They know what they’re doing. … I feel really fortunate to be part of this program.”
Quiñones said he hopes to take the electric class in the future, if his work schedule permits.
“Now I can do a few things,” he said. “It was great. It’s a nice program, and you learn. And maybe I’ll come back.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.