Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Lessons for Introducing Young People to the Traditional Building and Preservation Arts 

12-09-2015 17:35

Integrating building trades into all levels of education is one of the goals of the Preservation Trades Network’s International Trades Education Initiative (ITEI). From elementary school on up, it is important for youth to have opportunities to study the built heritage and the people and processes employed to create and sustain that heritage. These programs for young people play a vital role in ensuring that the traditional building trades are accessible, understood, and valued by the public. In addition to fostering a deeper appreciation for craftsmanship, hands-on learning in the trades can ignite a genuine interest in the building arts and preservation and help recruit the next generation of craftspeople needed to care for America’s historic architecture.

There are a multitude of short courses, workshops, and summer programs that use hands-on experiences, particularly problem-based learning, to teach elementary, middle, and high school students about architecture, urban design, and historic buildings. Two specific stages in the education continuum are worth examining: 1) a child’s first introduction to design, buildings, and construction, and 2) young adults’ first handson learning experience in the building trades. A sampling of existing programs, both within and outside the preservation community, demonstrates the range of concepts and curricula that have been developed to introduce young audiences to the building arts and preservation.

Local Preservation Organizations: Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, New York City

Many local preservation organizations have developed programs targeting elementary and middle school students. New York City’s Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts offers an in-school architectural education course for second and fourth graders (described at in which trained docents teach students the language of buildings through a series of exercises and a scavenger hunt that capitalize on the diversity of Manhattan’s streetscapes.

Like many other programs, this curriculum only touches upon building materials and methods, focusing more on the features that characterize an architectural style. However, this and similar programs demonstrate the potential for collaboration, as many communities have local historical societies or museums or preservation advocacy organizations with existing programs that could be adapted or enhanced with information about the traditional building arts.

Allied Professional and Industry Groups: American Institute of Architects

Most state chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) have developed courses that introduce children and young adults to the study of architecture and the built environment. Learning By Design: NY (www.aiany. org/nyfoundation/learning.html) offers in-school classes in which program educators work with teachers to deliver hands-on lessons, including Introduction to Architecture; Neighborhood Architecture; How Buildings Work; and Climate, Geography and Architecture. One of the four primary goals of LBD: NY is “to introduce students to careers in architecture, design, engineering, historic preservation, and construction.”

The strength of the New York program is twofold. First, it educates the educators through “Professional Development Workshops” in which teachers learn how to use the built environment to enrich student learning and at the same time meet city and state educational standards. Second, the program has maximized resources by partnering with cultural institutions to extend their existing arts education offerings to include architecture and design studies.

In Chicago in 2004, the AIA sponsored a national symposium on K-12 design education. Convened by the American Architectural Foundation, one of the symposium’s goals was to teach participants “strategies for creating and sustaining a design-based education program in their community and/or school system.” A partnership with the AIA could prove beneficial in introducing a large audience to the significance of and relationship between quality design and craftsmanship.

Museum Programs: National Building Museum

At the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., ( short courses allow groups of students, ages 5 through 13, to engage in design and construction processes. Hands-on activities encourage students to explore the built environment and to understand that their design decisions can have a positive impact on their surroundings. Students leave classes with self-constructed projects, such as a model of an adobe house or suspension bridge. Teachers are given packets that provide information on ways to integrate design and construction into lesson plans.

The National Building Museum’s Early American Architecture course examines five historic residential types by geographic region, such as the Northeast saltbox and the Midwest earth lodge. Working in groups, students survey building materials, maps, and photographs and construct models of the houses. The educational programs of the museum take a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to design and construction, with an emphasis on problem solving.

Beyond its educational programs, the National Building Museum’s annual “Festival of the Building Arts” brings in craftspeople from organizations such as the International Masonry Institute and the Blacksmiths’ Guild of the Potomac to demonstrate their respective trades to children and their parents. A significant aspect of the National Building Museum’s exhibitions, programs, and events involves providing the opportunity for children and young adults to handle and use tools and to interact with craftspeople.

National Volunteer Organizations: Landmark Volunteers

At the high school level, Landmark Volunteers ( is a national nonprofit service organization for students ages 14 and up. Founded in 1991, the program offers high schoolers the opportunity to spend two weeks each summer working at a historical, cultural, environmental, or service institution. The students, most of whom are preparing for college, engage in on-site manual labor such as constructing a fence, painting a building, or some other form of cyclical maintenance. The project and learning objectives are defined by the participating institutions, which have included Colonial Williamsburg, Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and other sites across the U.S. Landmark Volunteers offers the opportunity to develop a construction or restoration-based project for students who may not otherwise choose to take a vocational course in the building trades. Hands-on, site-specific summer programs such as this one could serve to build a larger constituency for the traditional building trades and preservation for the long term.

Public Educational System: Preservation Arts & Technology High School

The programs just described serve invaluable roles by supplementing traditional classroom learning and introducing children and young adults to architecture, preservation, and construction. However, a high school in New York City offers a different model by operating within the public school system.

The Preservation Arts & Technology program at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts in New York—the first program of its kind in the United States—integrates cultural heritage conservation into the public educational system and provides occupational-based learning in the traditional building trades and preservation. By merging hands-on instruction in trades and conservation with a full academic curriculum and requiring a summer apprenticeship, the high school adheres to nationally recognized standards for vocational education while meeting rigorous academic standards set by New York City and State.

The concept of embedding cultural heritage preservation training in the public educational system originated at a 1993 symposium sponsored by the World Monuments Fund, “Employment Strategies for the Restoration Arts: Craft Training in the Service of Historic Preservation.” One issue highlighted by the symposium was the limited number of existing programs to train people in the traditional craft skills needed to maintain the nation’s architectural heritage. (For additional information on this, see “Why Trades Matter for Preservation: A Half-Century of Promoting Traditional Building Skills for Preservation” in this issue.)

Based in part on the symposium’s findings, the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Center for Architecture and Building Science Research, led by director Kate Ottavino, partnered with the World Monuments Fund to develop a magnet-school type of curriculum with the overarching theme of heritage preservation. Traditional subjects such as literature and history are taught using New York City and international landmarks, referred to as “benchmarks.” For example, teachers use benchmarks to enhance lessons on a particular historical period or event or social or cultural movement. The materials, design, construction, and preservation of individual benchmarks are employed to illustrate mathematical and scientific concepts and to enhance more conventional instruction techniques. Mirroring the interdisciplinary nature of historic preservation, the theme-base curriculum enables teachers to make dynamic connections between their respective fields.

While all students attending the Brooklyn High School of the Arts are exposed to historic architecture and preservation, those students majoring in preservation arts take additional classes focusing on philosophical and technical approaches to preservation. Again, benchmarks, in this instance New York City historic sites and landmarks, serve as teaching aids to illustrate concepts. By relying on local landmarks, students have the opportunity to visit the sites and interact with the organizations and individuals charged with caring for them. For example, the tenth grade course benchmark is the United States Custom House in Lower Manhattan, a Beaux Arts building designed by Cass Gilbert (1899-1907). Among the various lesson topics is a science discussion that illustrates the effects of acid rain by looking at how acids, bases, and salts have contributed to the deterioration of the U.S. Custom House’s stone facade.

Hands-on learning opportunities expose students to different traditional building crafts and material conservation methods and help the school meet the Career Technical Education (CTE) or vocational requirements as established by the federal government and regulated by the state. A required summer internship or apprenticeship also allows students to obtain the hours in supervised occupational learning necessary to meet national vocational education standards. Supported partly by New York City’s Youth Employment Program, the six-week summer internships and apprenticeships afford students real-world experiences in professional offices, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and trade firms specializing in restoration. Summer apprenticeships have focused on stained glass, stone carving, and metallurgy, to name a few specialties.

Since its inception in 2000, Preservation Arts & Technology High School has attracted an ever-increasing number of students. This year’s ninth grade class numbered more than 25, doubling the initial enrollment four years ago. The success of the program to date can be attributed to several factors. First, it relies on a private-public partnership. Foundations and nonprofit organizations supplement public funding for curriculum and teacher development, while New York City’s Board of Education provides the annual financial support necessary to sustain the program. Second, the high school was created and developed within the parameters of existing definitions for vocational education and established academic standards. The Preservation Arts & Technology curriculum is based upon the New York City Board of Education’s New Performance Standards and the New York State Learning Standards and, as previously stated, meets nationally recognized Career Technical Education requirements. Third, the apprenticeship component, which has grown exponentially in the past few years, connects the school to a wide range of public agencies and private organizations and businesses that offer professional internships and building trade apprenticeships and support the school in various ways. In addition, the apprenticeship program has proven an important tool in the recruitment of new students.


As demonstrated by these examples, and numerous others, the process of integrating architecture, preservation, and construction into the earliest stages of education has begun. Each of these programs affords an opportunity for the everexpanding network of building arts organizations to collaborate with organizations both within and outside the historic preservation community to introduce a new generation of craftspeople to the traditional building trades.

Building on this good start, here are suggestions for others looking for ways to introduce young people to the traditional building arts:

  • Collaborate with organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, National Building Museum, and Landmark Volunteers to augment existing programs and create new ones.
  • Develop enrichment programs that impart teaching skills to building tradespeople so that they may more effectively share their knowledge, experience, and skills.
  • Identify existing programs at the elementary and high school levels that could be easily expanded to include traditional building trades and preservation.
  • Collaborate with existing high school and post-secondary level vocational and technical trades programs to offer opportunities for students to explore traditional building trades and preservation.
  • Encourage the adoption of the Preservation Arts & Technology program concept in other high schools through the United States.

Publication Date: Summer 2005


Author(s):Morris Hylton III