Updated: Friday, September 25, 2015, 3:01 AM
Just a few weeks after it was founded in 2008, the Philadelphia architecture firm Digsau landed its first commission. It came from the Challenge Program, a Wilmington nonprofit that teaches construction skills to high school dropouts. What they wanted was a building that combined a workshop, where trainees could master table saws and lathes, with classrooms, where they could attend GED classes and counseling sessions.
What could be more straightforward? Any half-decent architect could knock that out in a matter of months.
Turns out there were a couple of unusual requirements. The design had to be exceptionally simple because the program was planning to have its trainees erect the building themselves. And to save money, the director, Andrew B. McKnight, wanted to construct it entirely with found and donated materials.
Digsau did not freak out. Instead, it embraced the assignment, drawing up plans for a basic, steel-frame workshop inspired by the kind of sawtooth factories that dot rust-belt cities everywhere, and Wilmington's Christina waterfront in particular.
The result has been an inspiring collaboration between the high-profile architecture firm and young men who otherwise might have spent the last seven years in jail. As successive teams of trainees learned to hammer and saw and tighten steel bolts, the architects would stop by to adjust their design to suit their skills. At some point, finishing the building became irrelevant.
Digsau went on to win many other commissions and gain a reputation for distinctive, finely crafted buildings - the cafe at Philadelphia's Sister Cities Park, a couple of sleek offices at the Navy Yard, an elegant fitness center for Swarthmore College. They won prizes and had their work featured in museum shows.
After a while, they simply chalked up the Challenge commission to a learning experience. "It taught us to lose our preciousness and accept the grit, rather than a high level of finish," says Mark Sanderson, one of the four founders.
So it came as a surprise when McKnight called the Digsau architect recently to let them know their design was close to being finished. This week, the trainees fashioned some reclaimed redwood into deck tiles and installed them on the roof. Once they cover the rest of the surface in water-absorbing plants, the workshop will be officially complete.
The result is a surprisingly handsome building. Its form really does resemble the old factories you see along Wilmington's Christina waterfront, but it's been domesticated by a seductively textured facade of pallet-like wood panels made with staves taken from old Vlasic pickle barrels. The sawtooth roof allows natural light to flood in. Though Digsau is responsible for the rustic-modern concept, the credit for the execution goes to the trainees. But the success of such a design can't be judged by the usual architectural criteria.
Over the course of the project's long gestation, the trainees succeeded in assembling every piece of the building themselves, using materials that were scavenged, donated, or somehow obtained at no cost. In salvaging those discards, they also began to salvage their troubled lives.
During the seven years it took to construct the workshop, McKnight says the Challenge Program took on roughly 170 young men, ages 18 to 24, who had dropped out of school and gotten in trouble with the law. Besides teaching them construction skills and paying them a stipend, the program provided an array of services intended to make them more employable.
Many obtained GEDs; others dealt with their substance problems, McKnight says. The program was able to place 85 percent in jobs, most of them paying above minimum wage. Nearly 69 percent still had those jobs six months after they started. Six made it into Philadelphia unions.
That's a remarkable success rate given the trainees' personal problems. "Most of them grew up without ever knowing an employed male family member - not their fathers or grandfathers," explains McKnight. "A lot spent time in foster homes. They're all suffering from a kind of PTSD."
When McKnight, a former marine biologist with a passion for building wooden boats, set up the Challenge Program in 1995, he viewed it purely as a job-training program. But it soon became clear the lack of a high school diploma was the least of the trainees' issues. He brought in social workers and established classes to help them deal with anger management and time management.
The program now trains 12 young men every semester, on an annual budget of $1.2 million, with $500,000 devoted to training. That works out to $17,500 per trainee. Considering that the Justice Policy Institute estimates it can cost $148,000 to lock up a young man in jail for a year, that's a pretty good deal.
Most of McKnight's budget comes from federal job-training programs and foundations. But ever since the building's walls and roof were enclosed, McKnight has been able to run a small carpentry business inside the workshop.
The trainees have produced furniture for a Who's Who of clients, including the Philadelphia restaurants Talula's Table, Frankford Hall, and Honeygrow. When the new Pier 68 park opens next week on the Delaware, it will include roller-coaster-shape benches built by the Challenge Program's trainees.
"That's what sets us apart," McKnight boasts. "We run this like a real construction business."
Not all the facade panels line up perfectly, but Digsau's principals have come to see the handmade aesthetic as part of their signature. When they designed the Swarthmore College fitness center, Sanderson says, they decided to salvage stone from other campus buildings and hired traditional stonemasons to install it.
Kyle Hamilton, 21, one of the seasoned trainees, credits the project with changing his life. He had knocked around from one minimum-wage job to another. Now, he expects to earn $18 an hour at an entry-level construction job. It's not just the skills he has mastered that give him hope. "When you step back and see the finished product," he says, "that's the best feeling of all."
Note: This column was updated with the correct amount of the Challenge Program's budget.