SAIT teacher urges school to reopen hands-on construction lab where students built houses

Categories: Canada


Polytechnic institute discontinued facility, spokesperson says

Posted: January 25, 2023

Teams of civil engineering technology and architectural technology students at SAIT work on the subfloor of a home. The school has now discontinued the hands-on learning tool. (Houselabguy/Instagram)

An instructor with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) is urging the school to reopen a hands-on learning lab where students in the civil engineering and architectural technology programs would build houses to better understand the process.

SAIT instructor Carlo Velcic says he doesn’t understand why SAIT shuttered the lab, which he says was immensely helpful when teaching his estimating class.

Each year, teams of students would build the frame, floor and roof of a home, plus install windows and doors on two 1,000-square-foot bungalows.

“When we combine the theory with the practical, they go to the lab and actually see what we’re talking about in class. They have that ‘aha’ moment where they go, ‘I get it now.’ We’ve lost that,” Velcic said.

The lab has been around in one form or another for decades.

In 2012, it was officially named the Founding Builders Home Lab in honour of the 10 Calgary builders who donated $1 million each to help build the large hangar-like space in SAIT’s trades and technology complex. 

Velcic says SAIT told staff and students it was closing the lab around the time the pandemic hit. At the time, he says, there was so much going on, he put the issue aside knowing it would be a while before students returned to in-person learning.

With students back and the lab still closed, he says he’s been asking a lot of questions without any real answers.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Velcic. “Nobody’s saying why we can’t have it back.”

SAIT instructor Carlo Velcic says it’s tough for some students to learn how to estimate costs and read blueprints without seeing first-hand how a home is built. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for SAIT said it continually evaluates programs and curriculum while considering industry needs and enrolment.

It goes on to say the space itself remains open, but the use of a full-sized house for learning has been “discontinued.” Instead, the lab will be used as a space for innovation and the exploration of new building methods.

“This includes advancing the construction industry through applied digital education,” said Brian Zinter, interim dean with the SAIT school of construction.

“Also, the space can now be used for commercial construction practices, capstone projects, project-based learning, industry collaboration, speakers and presentations, and our MakerSpace [a student club] is relocating to the homebuilder lab as well.”

Students disappointed

Velcic says he plans to retire soon and worries about the current and future students who won’t get this type of hands-on training, especially international students, recent high school graduates or those who haven’t worked in the industry before.

One civil engineering technology student from the Philippines, Sonny Sinda, tells CBC News the lab was one of the reasons why he chose to attend SAIT.

He says he found out the lab had been closed only after he started last fall.

“I don’t know if without that part I would still proceed … I was disappointed, of course,” he said. 

SAIT posted this image on Twitter in 2019 saying, ‘Did you know we had a house lab?’ It shows one of the houses built by construction students being moved off the site. (SAIT/Twitter)

Destry Nowoczin, another civil engineering technology student who is an electrician by trade, says he worked in residential construction for about 20 years, so he is not upset about the cancelled lab. But he says he sees value in it for inexperienced students.

“You can look at a screen or a piece of paper all you want all day. But if you don’t know specifically what you’re doing, you’re kind of almost just going through the motions,” Nowoczin said.

A former academic chair of the civil engineering technology program sent an email to CBC News saying he was “heartbroken” to hear the lab was decommissioned.

Steven Motta said it was intended to provide “job ready” graduates and had become a showpiece of applied education.

“I believe SAIT needs to consider the importance of ‘hands-on applied education’ and reinstate the house lab,” Motta said.

Surprised by decision

Velcic says he doesn’t believe the decision to close the lab was made because of the cost of the program.

For several years now, he says, McCann’s Building Movers Ltd. has been supplying the materials, providing the drawings, arranging the sale of the homes and moving them from the lab to the community for free.

It would then receive a commission on the sale of the house to cover its costs.

“There wasn’t really any financial gain on our part; it was more about assisting SAIT, the students and the future workforce to build a house,” said Patrick McCann, co-owner of the company.

SAIT students used to get the chance to build two houses per year in their lab, which would get them ‘job ready’ according to a former academic chair. (Houselabguy/Facebook)

McCann says the houses ended up in mostly rural communities across Alberta. He says he still gets calls from people who want a SAIT-built house.

The company says SAIT’s decision took them by surprise.

“I would love to sit down with anybody at SAIT and try to get it restarted. That’s what partners do, but I never once got asked in for a meeting or to tweak anything, it was just, ‘Come get your equipment. We’re not building houses anymore,'” McCann said.

CBC News reached out to the 10 builders who donated money to help create the lab. Only one responded.

In an email, Jayman Built said they weren’t aware it had closed, nor the reasons associated with it.

After SAIT students finished building a home, it would be moved off-site, completed and sold by McCann’s Building Movers Ltd. (Houselabguy/Facebook)

Velcic says he understands the school wants to implement more digital learning, including virtual reality programs, augmented reality and building information modelling, but it shouldn’t replace the real thing. 

“It’s just not the same. Once you see it in real life and you can touch it and feel it … it makes a difference,” he said. 

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