Last winter, students from the North Bennet Street School Carpentry program decamped to a sprawling Dover horse farm to renovate its guest house with a team from the Topsfield-based C2MG Builders, Inc., in a project that seamlessly dovetailed with their curriculum.
"I thought it would be a perfect fit for NBSS students," explains Kurt Fieldhouse CA '93, owner of C2MG, a company specializing in high-end residential, light commercial, and historic renovation projects, and a member of the NBSS Carpentry Program Advisory Committee.
"The breadth and scope of this project opens students' eyes to how far the curve swings in carpentry," says Kurt. "It's important for them to have the opportunity to be out on a job like this. The practical application of their skills is vitally important." Carpentry Department Head Peter Smith PC '04 and Instructor Brock Leiendecker PC '16 immediately recognized the value of the project.
"We saw the potential, but every opportunity like this has to align with our need to teach carpentry, not just provide a labor force," points out Peter. "Kurt's desire to give our students a real-world learning environment, coupled with the way he organized everything, made us feel very comfortable."
That approach included an advance planning meeting which brought Peter and Brock together with Kurt, who is the project's general contractor, two additional C2MG team members, Vice President Jim Bochetti and Executive Vice President Alex Madison, and with Dave Prothero from Light Hill Property Management. Students joined a subsequent planning meeting.
"We kicked the whole thing off in classic style with a beef stew lunch at the site, during which we talked about the overall job as well as safety standards, OSHA compliance, and more," recalls Kurt. "Everything Peter and Brock did was intentional, driven by the discussions and their grasp of the project. They pulled it all off without error."
MEANINGFUL FIELD WORK
When the NBSS students reported to the site, the existing house had already been gutted down to the framing. With two or three C2MG carpenters on hand at all times, the 26 students took on a range of tasks.
Four of them demoed two chimneys and rebuilt floor framing and exterior walls at chimney locations, while groups of six students, rotating weekly, donned safety fall protection and stripped the old roof, repaired the sheathing, and applied a waterproof membrane to the entire new roof.
At the same time, groups of two to four students rotated weekly as they installed new plywood subfloors, reframed doorway openings, and built temporary walls until a permanent LVL/engineered beam was ready for the new interior walls, according to Peter. Working on existing roof rafters that were undersized, the students then sistered on new 2X lumber in situ, as prescribed by an engineer.
Throughout the job, the NBSS instructors were pleased that Kurt and his team always made sure the work was meaningful for the students. According to Peter, "Kurt's carpenters were all aware that this was an educational opportunity for our students, so it was like having four or five instructors on the site at all times."
Anabel Santillan CA '20 (pictured left), who joined C2MG in May but returned to the School this fall to complete her coursework, credits both NBSS and C2MG for their shared focus on the importance of education, safety, and attention to detail. "NBSS taught me best practices and gave me a passion for my craft. And at C2MG, everyone's been great about me being the company's first female carpenter. The professionalism of the C2MG team is evident every day, in everything we do," says Anabel.
Peter says that both he and Brock are "thrilled that Anabel has found a career and a home at C2MG where she can apply her talents as a carpenter." According to Kurt, Anabel is one of about 10 NBSS graduates he has hired over the years. "Colleagues of mine and I often say that an NBSS graduating class is like the NFL draft," Kurt says. But while football players usually play a single position, NBSS Carpentry alumni cover many.
"NBSS taught me best practices and gave me a passion for my craft. And at C2MG, everyone's been great about me being the company's first female carpenter. The professionalism of the C2MG team is evident every day, in everything we do," says Anabel. "I'm living the dream."
In Dover, the students not only removed inside walls and completed structural components of framing, they also installed weight-bearing laminated veneer lumber (LVL) in the roof system, acting as an engineered ridge beam. Floor joists and interior walls were also bolstered with engineered lumber.
LEARNING BY DOING
The NBSS instructors found the field applications of the project especially gratifying. "Installing LVL is something we would normally only be able to discuss. Ordinarily, you only get to do that kind of rehab work in the real world. Kurt also had one of his lead carpenters demonstrate window installation, taking time to answer all the students' questions. Each of the students was then able to install one or two windows.
"You can't teach experience," points out Peter. "It is the difference between talking about window installation and actually doing it. It's an important component of what we teach."
It came as no surprise to Kurt that the students were eager to learn. "NBSS is like the Harvard of carpentry. Not only are the students very high caliber, they have a very high level of engagement," says Kurt. "And they always ask good questions."
One of those students, Andy Dorman CA '20—a former professional soccer player who spent seven years as a midfielder with the New England Revolution prior to enrolling at NBSS—says he very much values the experience he got on the Dover Project. "The best part was working with the staff from C2MG," he says. "We got to work in small groups, learning the tricks of the trade. It was challenging work, but the opportunity to interact with and learn from professionals made it all worthwhile."
Greg Simko CA '20 concurs with his classmate. "The guest house was an excellent opportunity to put the starting principles of carpentry to work outside of the 'NBSS laboratory.' It really helped us to put into context the reality of job-site conditions," says Greg.
WORKING HAND IN HAND
And Kurt made sure to give them plenty to think about, too, taking the students to visit a traditional Japanese-style house in Newburyport, Massachusetts—which his company custom built—and setting up a meeting for them with the property owner/architect, Greg Colling of Merrimack Design. He also arranged for them to tour the nearby Mark Richey Woodworking as part of the field trip.
"Carpentry is very global. There is always another level. As a student, it is important to learn that the sky's the limit. Mark Richey Woodworking is off the grid. They have a real focus on sustainability, including wind, solar power, and biomass. "There, the students got to see how the materials they were using and installing were produced, fabricated, and pre-finished," says Kurt. "And Mark Richey also took the time to share his perspective and experience with the students."
All involved agree that the project became an ideal convergence of field work and classroom learning, one informing the other in real time. "We worked primarily on the jobsite, then went back to NBSS for a cabinetry lesson that became five custom vanities for the project," recalls Peter.
"The guest house was an excellent opportunity to put the starting principles of carpentry to work outside of the 'NBSS laboratory,'" says Greg. "It really helped us to put into context the reality of job-site conditions."
Whether in the field at Dover or in the program space at NBSS, the instructors' and students' commitment to excellence in and outside the classroom impressed Kurt. "The students were absolutely critical to the success of phase one of this project. They demonstrated their potential to live up to the standards of the School.
"And I can't say enough about Peter and Brock. They taught important lessons to 26 students on the jobsite by tying the Carpentry curriculum into everything done on the project," explains Kurt. "I can't wait until next year to work with a new group of NBSS students on phase two of this project."
COMING FULL CIRCLE
From Tim Williams, NBSS Board Member:
My grandparents, Ralph Blake Williams and Susan Jackson Williams, bought that property on Farm Street in Dover during the early 1900s. My father and his two siblings lived there most of each year, but the family lived in Boston during the winter. When my parents married, they were given a farmhouse that was set right on Farm Street and was part of that Dover property. I grew up in that house and spent a great deal of time exploring the woods on the property.
"I am thrilled to think of my family's former property being worked on by NBSS students."
During the 1950s, my grandmother, Mrs. Ralph B. Williams, was on the NBSIS Board of Directors. When she resigned, my father, Thomas Blake Williams, was asked to be on the School's Board of Directors. In the early 1970s, I was asked to be on the Board as well, while I worked at the University of Massachusetts. I joined the staff in 1974 and my father stayed on the Board for a few more years after that. So three generations of my family have been involved with NBSS, and now—almost 30 years after I left the School and 70 years after my grandmother first got involved—an NBSS Carpentry class has been working on the property my grandparents once owned. I am thrilled to think of my family's former property being worked on by NBSS students."