Students Hammer Their Way to Victory

It was an ant farm with power tools, a barn-raising in HO scale. This, I was certain, is what things look like at the North Pole on Dec. 23. Bob Vila would have been knocked breathless.

Think of it: 65 high school, college and Regional Occupational Program students, all of whom love hammers and nails even more than pizza, being given a huge pile of construction materials and a big bunch of tools and told to fling up a series of 8-by-10-foot structures in two days. You stand back or you risk being built into the foundation.

This controlled frenzy went on for most of last weekend at Orange Coast College as part of the third annual Design/Build Competition. The cacophony of pounding, drilling and sawing was sponsored by the Home Builders Council of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California and designed to give students who want to make a career in the construction business a chance to show their stuff in front of pros.

The rules: build an 8-by-10-foot structure with a foundation, walls, roof, a door and a window over the course of about 14 hours (spread over two days), and build it to satisfy the uniform building code and a group of judges.

The panel of judges, composed of building inspectors from Cypress and Costa Mesa and three associates from Orange County construction firms, rated the structures on creativity, code compliance, effective use of materials, safety, completion of design, plan review and several construction phases.

The construction teams came from Sonora, San Clemente, Capistrano Valley and Santiago high schools, the Central County ROP and Fullerton College.

The students, said event chairman Bob McGovern, take classes that teach specific construction and design techniques. Most of them expect to make a career in the building industry; however, he added, as students "they'd never really get a chance to go out and build a house somewhere. Here, we're trying to teach them the right way to put an actual building together."

The competition began in October when Sonora High School student Beau Freiman and Ventura College students Guillermo Cortes and Larry Drew submitted blueprints to the Orange County building inspector's department for code review and permit issuance. Freiman's design was used by every team except Fullerton College, which used the Cortes/Drew design. (Both designs won awards.)

But the show really started last Saturday at 7:30 a.m., when the first whine of power saws cut across the small parking area next to the OCC technology building, the first tape measure was spooled out and the first nails were driven home. The din finally subsided at about 6 p.m., and the teams cleaned up their job sites, packed away their tools and went home for the night.

For the Capo Valley team, it wasn't quite that simple: It was prom night. However, said McGovern, almost every member of the team returned to battle the next morning at 7:30.

At noon on Sunday, the signal came to drop all hammers and step away from the structures. There had been flurries of last-minute activity, and when all the pounding stopped and the dust settled, not every shingle on every structure had been nailed into place. Still, most were substantially complete and sturdy-looking.

"It's a real challenge for these kids," McGovern said. "They not only have to think about building, they have to think about safety, wearing goggles and hard hats and keeping all their materials in a designated area, showing up at the job site on time. And the group from San Clemente has only been in (construction) class for two months.

"They all get along well together. I'm real proud of them. The awards are really immaterial; it's the experience they get that counts."

But, what the heck, just for the record: Central County Regional Occupational Program won in the ROP division, Fullerton College won in the college division, and the group from Sonora High--all drafting students--took the prize in the high school division.

And what happens to the structures? McGovern said that most of them likely will be donated to the various schools for use as storage sheds for, say, janitorial or sports equipment. They are, after all, fully up to code, completely weather stripped and built with durability, function and--as far as possible--perfection in mind.

It may be a bit too soon to start cheerleading, but based on what I saw last weekend, you could do a lot worse than to hire these guys after they graduate. Just start the clock and stand well back.

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