Homebuilders impress me. I know many; they’re great people. Honest, hardworking. They have a lot of good experience and they take pride in their work. They generally do not have a college education.
I think our universities need to offer a new degree: Bachelor of Science in Homebuilding.
Employment and education in America has changed a lot in the last generation. A high school education used to be sufficient to enter a decent career path and buy a home in the suburbs and raise a family. My father did this, as a pipefitter. He had a good union pension and he is living a comfortable retirement.
Now, you need a Bachelor’s degree for most permanent well-paying jobs. I recently saw a job listing in Los Angeles for an entry-level office job (what used to be called secretary) which required a Bachelor’s degree, plus fluency in English, Spanish, and Mandarin—trilingual! I recall that it paid about $36,000 a year.
Similarly, the standards have been raised for building-industry careers like architects and structural engineers. A Master’s degree is now generally required, where a Bachelor’s degree was once sufficient. Maybe it is not a strict requirement, but things are quickly moving that way.
Yet in 2016, to be a homebuilder you don’t need any education at all. In a purely capitalistic sense, this is great. Homebuilding is an industry with practically no barriers to entry. Working-class people and new immigrants can rise up quickly. All you need is a pickup truck, a few tools, a logo, and that first client.
A B.S. in Homebuilding would raise the level of the industry, and by extension the quality of our homes and our quality of life. My homebuilder friends are smart and experienced, but to be sure they could use a bit more book-learning and a real credential. They are not professionals and therefore limited in the eyes of the public. They could get more jobs this way. I’m sure the next generation of clients will expect a business owner or project manager to have a Bachelor’s degree. After all, secretaries have one.
In my view, homebuilders do not need to be educated to the same level as architects or engineers. Building a house simply does not require that level of sophistication. They need to know a bit about architectural design and planning, a bit about structural and mechanical engineering, quite a bit about building science (and home energy), and quite a bit about construction management, including accounting, business management, and real estate. A lot of universities teach all of these subjects, but they do not package them together and tailor them to students who want to build homes.
Universities are not trade schools, and should not be. Still, the program I have in mind would have quite a bit of practical hands-on education. Architectural design is important—traditional issues of form-making and space planning and aesthetics. Computing is important—3D modeling, rendering, basic energy simulations. Building science is very important, to minimize energy use—students in this program would learn how to prevent mold, how attics and basements work, and how use a blower door plus the science behind it. They should learn, at a basic level, how to design a truss, and a foundation, and a subdivision. Accounting and finance are important—amortization, depreciation, return-on-investment. Maybe they should learn a bit of interior design. Interpersonal communication and ethics would be required subjects, of course. They should pound a few nails and mix some concrete along the way.
What I envision for the B.S. in Homebuilding is fundamentally different from Architecture or Engineering or Business. For the students and graduates I have in mind, an architecture degree is too esoteric. They are practically-minded and do not excel at abstract thought. An engineering degree is frankly too difficult in math, science, and technical subjects. Building a house does not require partial differential equations and soil mechanics, but freshman physics would be great. A business degree is okay, but it is missing any content about how buildings work. The students I have in mind want to wear boots, not suits.
And, from the point of view of architecture and engineering education, those disciplines would then be free to deemphasize the single-family house and focus on the more complex issues facing those professions. Architects and engineers are not much involved in the homebuilding industry anyway. The schools would rather ignore that messy world and focus on commercial and institutional-scale projects, public spaces, large-scale innovations, plus theory and critical thinking. As elitist as this may sound, in a cutting-edge architecture program, it’s retrograde and unnecessary to design a suburban house.
Yet in American culture, we need homebuilders who can design and build a better single-family house—with taste, with scientific thought (including sustainability), with business savvy—and a credential which demonstrates a baseline understanding of those subjects.
Anthony Denzer is Department Head of Civil & Architectural Engineering at the University of Wyoming, and he leads the Building Energy Research Group (UW-BERG). His most recent book, The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design, was published by Rizzoli in 2013. He also maintains www.solarhousehistory.com.
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