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Sledgehammer Saturdays May Lead to New Educational Experience

Pratt junior James Wu was covered in it from head to toe like a living dryer vent.

Builders of Hope studentColoradoan Hillary Cavanaugh, with slight irony, called it the best powder she’d ever seen.

Using a plastic garbage can, Kathy Kay filled an industrial dumpster with it. The “it” is decades-old tufts of insulation ripped out of the walls and ceilings of a home in a modest neighborhood in southern Durham. Five miles away, a second group of Pratt student volunteers tore sheet rock out of a two-story home or removed anything that wasn’t nailed down in five other homes, including a wooden back deck.

More than 30 Pratt students worked a good part of a recent “Sledgehammer Saturday” preparing empty homes for renovation or relocation to a low-income neighborhood. This, and subsequent such Saturdays, may also be small steps toward a new experience for students wanting to incorporate into their education hands-on experience making existing homes greener and more energy efficient.

The Sledgehammer Saturday, as well as its November 21 sequel, was organized by Builders of Hope, a non-profit organization that renovates abandoned and boarded-up homes and makes them available for sale to low-income families. The homes are either renovated in their neighborhoods, or more likely moved to other areas to create neighborhoods of “recycled” homes. The group frequently recruits volunteer groups – like the Duke engineering students – to assist their own professionals.

While alone a worthy effort to help the community, a handful of Duke faculty members and staff saw in the activities of Builders of Hope a unique learning opportunity. Like a counterpoint to the Smart Home Program, where students designed from scratch and now tinker in a home with all the latest green technologies, working with Builders of Hope could provide students real-world experiences in sustainability and energy efficiency.

Builders of Hope student“The Smart Home is a fantastic educational facility, however it’s not like the housing most people live in,” said Pratt’s David Schaad, associate professor of the practice. “In our discussions, we quickly recognized that we really don’t have a vehicle for getting students first-hand experience in understanding how to make conventional homes more efficient. We could see for example students performing energy audits, implementing actions based on the findings, and then measuring their effectiveness.”

Discussions are ongoing between Builders of Hope, the Pratt School of Engineering and the Nicholas School of the Environment about possibly working together on a new educational experience. Those involved in these early discussions are Schaad, Jim Gaston, Smart Home Program director; and Nicholas professors Lincoln Pratson and Jonathan Weiner.

“Duke and Builders of Hope are very much interested in the possibility of collaborating in a way that provides one or more new, hands-on learning opportunities for Duke students,” Pratson said. “The volunteer weekends are an easy and immediate way to engage students in Builders of Hope projects while we pursue developing other activities in the projects with educational content.

“For example, each home Builders of Hope renovates has its own set of particular problems,” Pratson continued. “There could be a home that is a huge energy sink. It would be a great opportunity for students to figure out how the energy is being wasted and design solutions to the problem.”

After their first encounter with Duke students, Builders of Hope officials were impressed with the spirit of the volunteers.

“The students are such good workers -- they worked hard and stayed on task, just as you expect from engineers,” said Emily Egge, director of development for Builders of Hope and on-site at the insulation removal. “They worked with speed and diligence. They shifted gears without complaint – when they originally signed up it was supposed to be a more of painting and landscaping day. But, just like in most projects, things change.”

John Jenkins, Builders of Hope coordinator at the second site, added with a chuckle, “The students were great – especially when they’re tearing up stuff like sheetrock. I guess it relieves some tension. It’s funny though, they didn’t seem to go after the cleaning up with the same vigor as they went at the walls with sledgehammers.”