Learning by Doing

Learning by Doing

Each year, students in Madison Area Technical College’s Construction and Remodeling program complete a building that’s sold to the public. This spring, they took on a new style, creating a structure bigger and better than ever before. I caught up with John Stephany, program instructor, to find out more about the project. 


How many projects has the program done since its founding? 
The program has been around for over 30 years, working on a variety of different projects. We have been building the small modular homes here for seven years.

What is the role of students in the construction?
We had about 22 students this year, and they all worked on the house. They did almost everything: framed it up, installed the roofing, siding, flooring, drywall, cabinetry, windows and doors, trim, etc.

What is different about this year’s building?
We’ve changed the design to be more contemporary. This helped in many ways. Primarily, it simplified the design and construction, making the details the students needed to accomplish simpler, and at a more basic level. Our previous design was more traditional looking with a steep roof and a loft, but because of all the angles involved, it made for many trickier details that were not really beginning level.

How much say do the owners have in the construction?
Quite a bit. We prefer the clients be involved at the planning stages, and get quite a bit of input in the layout and design. We have some restrictions that primarily revolve around being able to transport it when we’re done—so size and shape—and we also try to keep the details simple, so no complicated crown details or things like that. Otherwise, we’re only limited by design imagination. We have worked with a couple of architects who are on board with what we are doing, and are able to produce drawings for us to work from.

How does the program work to incorporate “green” options? What about this house is efficient?

Last year’s house had a solar Photovoltaic system that the electrical apprentices here installed, and we are close to getting a Net Zero Home, which means, with the right balance of insulation, energy efficiency and solar PV, your house can produce as much energy as it uses.

We are really trying to look down the road at what our students will need to know and then we tailor our building details to reflect the coming trends. There are many college construction programs that are out building cookie cutter vinyl clad boxes without any innovation, and we see that as a huge opportunity lost on many levels.

We are trying to push the envelope on affordable, sustainable building. For instance, we use advanced framing details which create simplified load paths and create more insulation space. We build walls that have an insulation level of R30+ and we use Structural Insulating Panels (SIPs) for the roof, which are a core of solid foam insulation with plywood skins, which themselves have an insulation level of R40+. We use reclaimed wood flooring and the trim on this latest one all came from the ReStore.

I know the outside of the home has some special siding. Could you explain it more?
We install something called Smart Siding, which is a composite wood siding over a rain screen. Smart Side looks like wood siding at half of the cost and maintenance. For the rain screen, we use spacers behind the siding that create an airspace. This doubles the life of your siding and makes the paint job last twice as long as well, since the siding can dry out from all sides. It’s a direction the industry is moving toward. In old houses, the wall cavities were fairly leaky air wise, and siding could dry to the inside as well as out. With homes being built much tighter now—which is a very good thing—it was found that siding finishes weren’t lasting as long because it could no longer dry from the backside.

Tell me more about how the home is suited for “aging in place.” What does that mean for the owner?
Wider hallways, single level and wider doors into rooms allow for wheelchair and walker use. Keeping most everything on one level is also huge. If we were installing this home to be consistent with that idea, the exterior walkways would gently slope right to the door threshold—no stairs.

What design choices were made to help maximize space in the smaller layout?
The clients are going to use Ikea cabinets for storage in the bigger bedroom to separate it into two spaces for their kids, which saves space. The bathroom is just big enough to be accessible by a wheelchair, and we used a shower instead of a tub. We also combined the kitchen and dining areas.

What part of the home was the most challenging for students? What is their favorite part of it?
The students liked framing it and setting the beams and SIP panels. Drywall install is always challenging for some students, and proper window and door setting can be complicated as well. Some loved installing the flooring; some hated it. Some loved installing the siding; some hated it. The students who are more particular seemed to enjoy this finish details more, and the students who are less particular seemed to enjoy the framing and siding more.

How can someone purchase a project constructed by the program?
Contact me: stephany@madisoncollege.edu.

Is there anything else the public should know?
We are one of the best kept secrets of Madison College. Our program not only teaches all the basics of becoming a good beginning craftsperson, we are also out on the cutting edge of construction, and hope to start appealing to a wider audience due to the innovative things we are doing.

The innovation began about eight years ago, when Allie Berenyi was hired to be the new program director and teacher, and she started the program moving more in this direction. It really is incumbent on us to be in front, and training for the future, and also to be partnered with our industry and using us as their sounding board for new ideas. The public can come by and see how SIP panels work and decide to start using them, for instance.

For more information on Madison College’s Construction and Remodeling program, visit their website