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Framing the Answer: Thetford Academy Students Use Design, Math Skills on New Pavilion

Sunday, May 18, 2014
Thetford — Using pegs, posts and people power, Thetford Academy’s new timber framing class recently built an airy wooden pavilion near the school soccer fields.

On a recent Tuesday, the class raised most of the white pine frame they’ d spent months designing and building . With students coaching from the ground, teacher Chris Schmidt and paraprofessional Whit Van-Meter used a hand winch to hoist a roof truss, a triangular section of the frame that includes rafters.

“Mr. Schmidt, you’ve got to go a little bit faster,” said Joshua Paton, one of two boys using guide ropes to help align the bottom of the rafters with the top of the posts. “There you go.”

“Tell me when it’s level,” said Schmidt, TA’s d esign technology instructor.

“It’s level!” came the call from the students, who sported the unofficial uniform for the day: hard hats, T-shirts and work pants.

With a little guiding, the second of three king post trusses, named for the center post, came to rest on the posts beneath it, forming a “bent,” or cross-section of the building. It was locked in place with wooden pegs and a classic woodworking joint — a mortise and tenon. The mortises, or holes, cut into the bottoms of the rafters fit onto the tenons, the wooden tabs protruding from the tops of the posts. The class and a small crowd that had gathered to watch broke into applause.

The course, one of 10 new, mostly hands-on classes that started at the school this year , follows Thetford Academy’s tradition of hands-on experiential learning, said William Bugg, head of school.

Students “learn abstract things in the classroom and immediately apply (them) to what they are doing, ” said Bugg, who helped raise the frame. “There’s a lot of math in this class.”

The semester-long course takes a timber framing project from beginning to end.

Using a mixture of old and new tools, students practice the ancient building technique that has recently come back into vogue. In addition to hammers, chisels and handsaws, they also use power tools and current technology — Google SketchUp to design the pavilion and digital photography to record their work, all the while blogging about the process.

During the semester, Schmidt and a few students traveled to Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, where, with help from staff and student workers, they used precision tools to cut the metal that attaches the posts to the cement foundation.

The design arose from a class contest. Students split into three teams, and each team created a scale model based on a different truss style. They made basic engineering calculations, drew up site plans, and wrote schedules and budgets. To mimic “an actual job presentation,” they pitched their plans to an audience, said Andy Sharp, a senior.

The group of school employees, alumni and students gave feedback and voted for the winning design. After a little bit of tweaking, the class carried it out. Working in the shop, students cut the beams and put together bents to ensure they fit, then dismantled them for transporting to the foundation, which was poured last fall.

The 14-foot-high structure will serve as an outdoor classroom, picnic area and “a great spot to look at the soccer fields,” Bugg said.

Thanks to several donations, the course came at no additional cost to the school, he said. The school’s alumni association provided about $3,000 to buy tools and equipment, and some of the wood for the frame was donated. Also, an anonymous donor has pledged $10,000 a year for five years to support new programs at TA.

Hands-on classes are “essential” for students entering the building or other hand-skilled trades, said Schmidt, a certified math teacher who has built a half a dozen timber frames, including several houses. The experience helps them build a portfolio and skill set “so they can have a career.”

For those who are college-bound, it’s important to get some practical experience, whether for handyman work around the house or doing creative problem solving, which is “really what we are doing with this kind of a project,” said Schmidt, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990.

Still, with experience comes risks. “We are trying to find a happy balance between having the hands-on experience while ensuring (students’) safety,” he said.

For Sharp, who is headed to Quest University in British Columbia, the course was a way to learn a skill he would use, maybe even to build a house one day. Also, as it’s his senior spring, he wanted to take something enjoyable, rather than being “in the classroom, reading.”

Paton, a senior, studies building trades at Hartford Area Career and Technology Center. His favorite part of the class was “actually seeing us pull it together,” he said. “You can stand back and say, ‘I built this.’ ”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.

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