The to-do list on the whiteboard in Christopher Sedita’s classroom is not your typical one. It reads: 1. Finish siding 2. Install corner trim 3. Clean scraps 4. Organize toolshed 5. Install roof 6. Install HRV 7. Install plumbing 8. Install electrical.
It’s a list that seems more fitting for HGTV than a school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — and standing next to it is a wooden house constructed entirely within the confines of the classroom.
Sedita is the founder of the Green Buildings program at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, a career and technical education high school. The program prepares students for careers in 21st-century building design, construction and maintenance by emphasizing sustainability, energy efficiency and eco-friendly materials.
Students in Sedita’s building science class learn hands-on skills by constructing an eco-friendly tiny house over the course of the school year.
“In the first few weeks, it was just studs on the ground,” says Leah, a senior. “There was a lot of drilling to put up the frame, and then we did the floor and the walls.”
The one-room house, which occupies about half the room, currently stands empty as students finish the roof. In a few weeks, they’ll begin to lay down cork flooring, chosen because cork is an environmentally friendly material.
Sedita, who studied architecture in college, spent years working as a superintendent at a construction company that specialized in high-end, complex projects in New York City. He eventually became a partner in his own construction company and an art supply and framing entrepreneur. But when the financial crisis hit in 2008, he decided to take his knowledge and share it with students. He returned to school for a master’s degree in sustainability.
Much like the house his students construct, Sedita built the Green Buildings track at his high school from the ground up. Students at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers take an introductory course in environmental studies and then choose from two academic pathways: horticulture or Green Buildings. As seniors, they participate in off-site internships.
“I was able to think about where kids should be able to go after graduation and whether I could prepare them for a wide variety of fields within the building industry,” Sedita says.
Building science is a relatively new field of study, one that Sedita describes as “the intersection of architecture, engineering and science.”
“It’s really where the industry is moving,” he says.
In a traditional building or construction program, students learn standard methods for framing structures and plumbing. But in Sedita’s building science class, students learn “advanced framing,” a way of increasing insulation to make buildings more energy efficient and cut down on the amount of wood that’s used.
“I’m very clear with my students that there is a right way and a wrong way to build something, and I have evidence in the form of climate change and deforestation that the other way is the wrong way,” Sedita says.
Because New York has taken steps to require new buildings to meet stricter energy standards, students in Sedita’s class have the opportunity to enter new careers such as building science, energy auditing and weatherization technology.
Sedita, who’s also the school’s chapter leader, used the school-based option provision in the UFT-DOE contract to mix grades together in classes so that upperclassmen can set a tone of maturity for younger students.
“Sedita is not going to coddle you,” says Leah. “You have to put in the effort. If you’re in the class and you’re not motivated, he will really tell you about yourself.”
“But not in a disrespectful or rude way,” adds senior Devin. “He’s just straight-up real.”
As students unload hard hats, safety goggles and drills from the classroom tool shed, Sedita maintains a matter-of-fact smile even when cautioning students about potential safety issues (“What are you missing? Where are your earmuffs?”) and dismissing cosmetic concerns (“It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be something we can drill into.”).
While other students climb tall ladders to work on the roof of the house, two students are working on an even smaller version of the house: a cat shelter for the Astoria backyard of a student’s grandmother.
“We’re going to feel like we accomplished something when we’re done with it,” says Yadeily, a junior.
Sedita, who has made it his mission to show students all the possibilities of a career in building science, has accomplished something, too.
“He’s ignited students’ interests and created a lot of excitement,” says Ashley Felix, who coordinates the school’s partnerships with companies in the industry. “They get to create a plan and execute that plan.”