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Show of Hands
Inner-city youth learn the art of building in Delaware.
The Construction Training and Education Center in Wilmington, Delaware.
Carlos Alejandro Photography

On a peninsula jutting into the river in Wilmington, Delaware, a rough-hewn building is rising at a very slow pace. Digsau principal Jeff Goldstein is not concerned, and that’s probably because the act of building and not the building itself is, in fact, the point: the Construction Training and Education Center (CTEC) is a teaching tool for at-risk youth.

The students are part of a Delaware-based organization called the Challenge Program, which initially trained students in the art of making boats. The project’s executive director, Andrew McKnight, quickly realized that boat making was not a sustainable skill for inner-city youth, and the organization refocused and started training 25 young people a year, from ages 18 to 21 years, in carpentry and construction building.

A rendering of the riverside project.
Courtesy Digsau

CTEC is the first project by the four KieranTimberlake alumni who are now the principals at Digsau. And while Digsau has other projects built or well under way, CTEC moves at its own, organic pace. The design and master plan allows for repetitive tasks and improvisation. “We knew from the beginning what they didn’t need was standard construct documents,” said Goldstein. “We knew that the design would evolve, using the resources that became available.”

The Challenge Program works on several outside projects besides the CTEC campus, such as low-income housing and historic restoration. The building process at CTEC yields innovations that find their way into the other work. When eventually completed, the facility will include a green roof and solar panels. The building already utilizes reclaimed materials and features one of Wilmington’s first geothermal heating systems.

The non-union organization gets surprisingly smooth cooperation from unions on city construction projects. “Sometimes the city gives them houses to renovate,” said Jeff Starkey, Wilmington’s director of licensing and inspections. “It may take them a little longer because they’re learning, but the detail on what they do is actually fabulous.” Nor do they get a free ride from L&I; instead it becomes another learning opportunity, as students are brought in to see how an official licensing review works.

Students work on CTEC's facade (left) and Inside the facility, a learning site that's perpetually under construction (right).
Carlos Alejandro Photography

CTEC’s 4,000-square-foot barnlike structure includes a 1,000-square-foot mezzanine. The crew was involved in laying foundation systems of rebar and formwork. A steel frame constructed by R.C. Fabricators used limited welding so as to accommodate the students learning how to use torsion wrenches. The steelworkers from R.C. also allowed the students to work side by side with them and experience the steel rising—an exciting charge that Goldstein said can’t be understated.

Sawtooth skylights flood the rectangular interior with natural light and give the building a jagged profile; a cantilevering balcony juts out toward the stream. A metal stud frame allows for a modular system of reclaimed wood panels, measuring approximately a classic 4 feet by 4 feet. The wood—donated from a range of outside jobs—creates a variety of textures and color. The process of preparing the panels was like an old-school handwriting exercise, in that repetition gave way to interpretation, with the students’ handiwork giving the project an unexpected quilt-like quality. Back inside, deconstructed redwood pickle barrels serve as tables and sit atop block endgrain flooring that the students made of fir.

Tom Stoelker