ST. LOUIS • With a big smile, Melvin Dukes proudly points to the parts of the kitchen wall, an archway to the bathroom, a whole wall of siding outside and other intricacies of a house in north St. Louis that he’s helping build.
These are a few of his contributions to one of two houses under construction by Ranken Technical College’s carpentry program.
Each year, Ranken’s carpentry students build two homes. Their work is supplemented by other programs at the technical school.
The architecture students lay out the plans, the heating and cooling and plumbing students collaborate on the inner-workings of the house and the carpentry students take care of most of the rest. A few things are contracted out, like electrical work.
It’s part of Ranken’s hands-on learning mission, and the students say it’s working.
Dukes, 30, said he decided to go back to school and was debating between a few schools until he saw what he would get to do with the carpentry program at Ranken.
“I remember when we did that walk-through and I was like, ‘What do you mean we get to build a house?’” he said. “My eyes lit up.”
It’s not always easy, especially juggling the construction work for class, a carpet-cleaning job to earn money, then homework for his general education courses. But for Dukes’ end goal of owning his own company or being a landlord, this is worth it.
The home-building program has been around since 1994 when the technical school established the Ranken Community Development Corporation, specifically to revitalize areas of north St. Louis, which is Ranken’s backyard.
Melissa Borchardt, dean of enrollment and former home-building program coordinator, said Ranken students have built 62 homes. All but one are around the campus. The exception is in Maplewood.
Ranken buys the properties and almost always has to demolish dilapidated homes on each site. If the land can’t be built on, it becomes green space.
This year, two homes are under construction in the 4400 block of Evans Avenue, adding to several others Ranken students have completed on that street. There are plans to build a few more on that block before moving to some of the other lots the school owns.
The goal of breathing life into an area of the city that feels forgotten isn’t lost on those who are getting their hands dirty every day with the carpentry program.
“Yes, we’re just students, but we’re improving the area around here,” Dukes said. “We’re transforming the area. The better it looks, the better people here will want to help contribute by cleaning up around them.”
The homes range from 1,500 to 1,800 square feet. Most are two stories, with this year’s homes being the exception.
Ranken carpentry instructor Steve Hartge said they’re building ranch homes this year to meet a request from older, interested homebuyers who can’t climb stairs each day.
The homes include three bedrooms, at least two bathrooms and a two-car garage.
It’s exciting to see people living in and enjoying the houses of his past students, but Hartge’s favorite part of the process is watching the students as they work.
“They take a little more ownership in it if they start from the ground up and take it to completion,” Hartge said.
But, they’re still students, and that’s important to remember.
“You don’t forget they’re students, but sometimes you think they know a little more than they do,” he said. “A construction crew would have three guys out on a site like this and we’ve got a bunch of students.”
A challenge, he said, is speed. Three trained crew members can finish a house easily, but when every step is a learning opportunity that has to be reviewed by Hartge, the process moves slowly. It’s worth the time, though, when students are able to walk into a job interview and say they have experience in everything from wall framing to roof installation.
“When you have guys come back and say that they’re working in the field, that’s a really cool feeling,” Hartge said.
Stephanie Alvarado, 19, is looking forward to jump-starting her carpentry career when she graduates with her associate’s degree in May. Alvarado, a Chicago native, toured Ranken as a high school senior.
“I came here not knowing anything,” she said. “I didn’t know how to frame a wall — anything. Now, I can do that, install siding and everything. This is what I’m going to do now. I feel like I can apply this to anything in the real world now, even fixing random things around the house.”