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Off-the-wall-training

Leah Karmaker, curriculum development team member, talks about how Green New Deal Housing’s workforce training program demonstrates what learning ought to be: innovative, nimble, and fun.

Green New Deal Housing (GNDH) just completed its most comprehensive workforce training to date. Over the span of four months, our workforce development program delivered 24 course sessions to Community Action Duluth’s (CAD) construction cohort.

Donnie and the wall
Donnie and...THE WALL. A physical representation of the anatomy of a Green New Deal Housing wall.

We started with introductory content, covering topics like What is energy? How do you read a set of plans? What does design impact? By the end, our participants were not only reading blueprints, they were also comparing energy outputs from different housing projects, evaluating the efficacy of different construction details, and identifying thermal bridges in a set of drawings and on a construction site. The transformation is extraordinary.


Developed by a team of veteran builders, educators, and designers, our curriculum is designed to educate both the construction and construction-adjacent workforce about building “green,” while integrating a wide range of topics that, to the detriment of our buildings and their occupants, are not usually addressed in tandem. Our competency-based curriculum emphasizes both theory and practice. The curriculum also oscillates between “scales,” zooming into nitty gritty technical construction details, and zooming out to the intersections of housing, race, class, politics, and economics.


As an example, our Laying the Groundwork series, a four-part course, takes participants through the societal impacts of housing, building science, systems thinking, integrated design, and how to tie those concepts together to equitably build green. We demystify green building by teaching a clear and simple framework: is the building healthy, durable, accessible, and fossil fuel independent? This produces agile critical thinking applicable to a variety of situations and trades, rather than preachers of a single solution.


When we teach, we’re usually working with a mixed audience. Over the last year of the GNDH workforce development program, participants have included newcomers to the industry, folks with a couple of years of experience under their belt, members of previous cohorts (and, as a result, are taking our training for a second or third time), as well as some workforce development program administrative staff. Many participants, especially in the CAD cohorts, experience barriers to employment.


We practice competency-based learning, teaching in a responsive and fluid manner until the participants demonstrate understanding of the subject. This not only enables us to effectively engage a diverse audience like CAD’s, but also creates an adaptable curriculum that can be taken on by different types of educators (or – trade professionals who don’t conceive of themselves as educators at all). The most recent CAD cohort had their classroom learning reinforced with visits to a solar installer’s shop and an insulation contractor’s job site, as well as many visits to GNDH’s pilot construction project and several visits to Community Action Duluth’s current renovation projects.


To me, ensuring the success of this curriculum rests on teaching free of charge to those who cannot afford training, with curiosity, laughter, and a nutrient dense meal. There is a world where joyful, life-sustaining education and work is part of our everyday lives. Transforming our workforce means showing them that such a world is possible, and providing the conditions to create it. I am profoundly thankful for the partnerships that allow Green New Deal Housing to serve breakfast, facilitate connections to dignified employment with supportive employers, and train participants who are paid to get trained.


I highlight the strategies and perceptions that are meaningful to me as a designer who has trained both through architectural academia and construction work. I learned a great deal of theory in academia, but it was often dogmatic, alienating, and untethered to the realities of building. I found that construction profoundly enriched my design training, but there are few opportunities in construction to learn about the larger systems at play. Both fields woefully treat green building as an aesthetic option, rather than a means for profound change.


Generally, our academic and training institutions leave our design, building, and building-adjacent workforce ill-equipped to respond to the social, health and economic crises of our built environment. My experience moves me to help produce the curriculum I needed nearly a decade ago. I am moved further by the feedback from our participants:


I learned things from different aspects and perspectives I didn’t know mattered on so many wavelengths.

“I didn’t feel rushed or pressured, I wasn’t pushed … everything was well explained and hands-on.”

“I’m very motivated to keep a career somewhere in green building/HVAC, or electrician work.”

“[I learned] what green building means and why it's important. How to read blueprints way better than when I was in college.”

“I’ve learned how important heat, air, and moisture is, and how it can affect a structure after years of exposure, and ways of preventing damage.”

To learn more about transforming our construction workforce, see GNDH’s courses webpage. Please consider supporting GNDH’s efforts by donating powerfully to our Equity Fund today.

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