Volunteers rally to build construction training center in Baltimore
After nearly two years of planning, problem-solving, chasing permits and pulling together all the resources needed for an unconventional development, the Safe Alternative Foundation for Education and multiple BC&E member companies broke ground on the new Safe Center in Baltimore in February.
Located on South Payson Street in one of Baltimore’s most underserved communities, the 3,200-square-foot Safe Center will include a woodshop and classroom space, and provide National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) accredited training programs in several construction trades.
Safe Alternative Founder and Executive Director Van Brooks estimates the center will provide high-quality and hands-on training to about 40 middle school and high school students annually, as well as another 36 to 48 young adults who are looking to start careers in the construction industry.
Brooks also plans to purchase and renovate vacant rowhomes nearby both to provide students with construction experience and generate more investment in the community.
“I know this will be a game changer,” said Brooks. “We are creating a model that can be duplicated around Baltimore City and in other cities to provide construction trades training.”
The nature and location of the center, he said, will help many young people in the area overcome longstanding barriers to pursuing careers in construction. Those barriers include lack of educational facilities, affordable training, transportation, Internet access, industry contacts and other challenges.
“Truthfully, I hate seeing my community and other communities like it go without resources and opportunities,” Brooks said. “What motivates me is I know if you give members of my community an opportunity and some support, they will do well… There is a ton of construction happening in the city. We want to have people trained and prepared to take advantage of opportunities in construction.”
That mission – combined with Safe Alternative’s track record of providing construction trades education to middle schoolers – inspired BC&E Foundation Board Member John Stahl and several BC&E member companies to donate expertise and resources to help build the Safe Center.
From the start, the project – which would involve renovating three vacant rowhomes, including one that had been converted into a carwash – faced distinct challenges.
The buildings were suffering from age and neglect. Several floors were not level and the ground floor of the former carwash had been sloped to allow water to drain. The second-story floors of the buildings did not align because the upper floor of the middle house had been pushed higher to accommodate the high bay of the carwash. The initial group of BC&E members who visited the site, feared the only option was to tear the rowhomes down.
“The property was in really bad shape and the first impressions were that they would have to be replaced because there were not going to be safe,” said Scott Moir, an Associate at GWWO Architects. “But because of budget concerns, tearing down and starting over would have forced them to bring in modular classrooms or construction trailers and operate inside those instead.”
A specialist in educational architecture, Moir wanted to find another option because “everyone deserves a nice space to learn in… We surveyed everything, got pictures and measurements, modeled it and brought in a structural engineer to make some observations. We concluded that it would be a very challenging renovation but we could make it work without tearing down buildings.”
Based on GWWO’s conceptual design, Stahl began providing project management services and organizing the efforts of six additional donor companies: The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, Bunting Door and Hardware, Excell Concrete, Hatzel & Buehler, Floors Etc. and Temp Air Company.
Due to the nature of the renovation and its partly volunteer project team, securing permits became especially challenging and time-consuming. Whiting-Turner, which had been volunteering as a consultant on the project, “got a permit expediter involved who has done a lot of work for us,” said John Lawrence, Project Manager. “She was able to identify holes in the documentation, fill in that information and – with her knowledge of permitting processes and a lot of contacts at the city – was able to push through and get the permits.”
Meanwhile, other donor companies worked out the details of the center’s design and construction plan.
“There were people volunteering to supply and install materials for this project – concrete, flooring, doors, windows and more – and doing it gratis or at severely discounted rates,” Stahl said. “They also worked out details for the center so that we could create the best, most workable space possible for learning.”
For example, Bunting Door and Hardware proposed altering the design to install more tightly sealed doors to prevent noise from the woodshop from disrupting work in adjacent classrooms.
Some BC&E member companies have already discussed helping with training programs at the Safe Center once construction is complete later this year, Stahl said.
“This is the beauty of the Building Congress,” he said. “I am able to reach out and get this kind of help from so many companies. The construction industry has been good to all of us and people want to give back. They are inspired by Van, they know he is capable of bringing this development to life in a tough, tough area and helping create opportunities for people in that neighborhood. We will help train people there and maybe they will come work for us.”
The donations and volunteer efforts of the BC&E companies were pivotal to making the Safe Center project happen, Brooks said.
“I definitely want to thank those who stepped up and supported us through this long process,” he said. “Their support never waivered. I really have to give a shout-out to John Stahl. He has really been the glue that brought this project together. When I got frustrated, he would step in and say, I have someone who can help and we can make this happen. He took this project on like it was his own.”