Sign up for our e-newsletter

« Back to Tifton News

Greening Tifton: Moultrie Tech Students Build Innovative Home

Aug 10, 2011 by Source

Kenya Mitchell pushes a 100-pound motorized plate compactor over a pile of freshly laid dirt in downtown Tifton’s historical district. Back and forth he pushes, his arms shaking in unison with the compactor’s 500 vibrations per minute. It’s almost noon on an unseasonably warm spring day. His sweat-drenched white T-shirt sticks to his back. He’s tired. He’s hot. He’s not getting paid for his work.
And he’s loving every second of it.
“This is a second chance for me,” said Mitchell, who is on unsupervised probation. “I’ve messed up a time or two. If somebody’s going to give me a second chance, I’m not going to pass it up.”
Mitchell is one of 23 students in Tony Grahame’s Green Construction class at Moultrie Technical College. The students are building a zero net energy house from the ground up. When finished, the house will use solar power to produce more electricity than the house’s eventual occupants will need.
The students – 18 men and 5 women – are participating in Moultrie Technical College’s Green Tift program. The program is funded with a $3.75 million Pathways out of Poverty grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The grant was designed to recruit probationers, high school dropouts, displaced workers and residents with disadvantaged backgrounds to receive degrees, diplomas and certificates in green technology areas such as green construction, energy efficiency, and solar energy. Local education institutions partnering with Moultrie Tech include the University of Georgia and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
Late in the summer of 2010, Mitchell was working a dead-end, part-time job at the Tifton Mall, when he noticed a flyer that advertised the Green Tift program.
Mitchell had five children to support. His post-high school education consisted of some drafting classes at Moultrie Technical College in 2002, “but I just kind of strolled away from that.” After he studied the flyer, he said, “It looked like I was eligible for the program, so I called right up.”
Since Mitchell enrolled in the Green Construction class in October 2010, the class has focused on completing the zero net energy house. “We’ve never just sat in some classroom. The very first day he (Grahame) started explaining what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”
What Mitchell and his classmates are going to do on this day is prepare the house’s carport area for concrete pouring. One group hauls dirt in wheelbarrows to the carport area, where Mitchell and some others compact the dirt. Another group of students listen to Grahame explain the finer points of rebar, which will be used to compensate for the imbalance of concrete, a material strong in compression but relatively weak in tension.
“This rebar is rusty,” Grahame says. “It was delivered this way. We’re going to use it, but it’s not the best for long-term durability.” Grahame goes on to explain that in commercial work, rebar is usually coated with a seal to prevent rust. The concern is that if moisture causes any cracks in the concrete, the rust will increase and the durability will decrease.
During a break from his compacting work, Mitchell overhears Grahame. He is not surprised about the length of the lecture nor its meticulous nature. “See what I mean? He explains everything. That’s one of the best things about this. I’ve never done any of this. It’s all new to me. So I like it that he explains everything.”
Grahame is a nationally recognized expert in green building who has won Builder of the Year through the National Association of Home Builders, but he has taught students about building houses for 15 years. He is used to communicating with novices.
“One of the good things about this program is that we can train,” Grahame said. “This is a great opportunity to teach them the importance of good work habits, taking pride in good, accurate workmanship. My students know at the end of every day and at the end of every week what has to be accomplished. They always have a goal and everybody is on the same page.”
Mitchell confirms this. He knows that the class will begin pouring concrete on the carport area in less than 24 hours. “Concrete days are tough,” Mitchell said. “You gotta stay on top of it or it will get away from you. Mr. G (Grahame) gives no privileges on concrete days.”
While concrete days may be tough, Mitchell is looking forward to the next week. “Next Tuesday will be fun,” he said. “We get to do framing, and I really like the framing part.”
Grahame’s passion for teaching is obvious to the students.
“He stays on you, but he shows you how do it the right way,” said Mitchell. “He always tells us to ask questions.”
Just as obvious is Grahame’s empathy for his students, most of whom are probationers, lack education, or face other employment barriers.
“For whatever reasons, they haven’t had the best guidance to get out of these traps,” Grahame said. “You’ve got to engage them. Keep their mind off some of their daily problems.”
The mix of passion and empathy has created a mutual respect rarely found in traditional teacher-student classroom settings.
“Every one of them will get jobs,” Grahame said. “These absolutely will be the students you want to hire if there is work out there. These are kids who took time to get back to school, to learn, to know cutting-edge technology. Some of them will land very good jobs. One will be a general contractor. Some will go into plumbing, energy management, electrical.”
One of those students is Deborah Harbin, a 45-year-old probationer who, Grahame said, is “one of my better workers.”
Harbin was unemployed and taking care of a friend who has cancer when she learned about the program through her probation officer.
“This program has saved me,” she said. “I thank God for it.”
Harbin has 15 years experience working on construction sites – her specialty is electrical. Despite her experience, she said she is “learning a lot. He (Grahame) has taught me easier ways to do things the right way.”
The lot – at 403 Park Avenue in Tifton’s historical district — where Harbin and her fellow classmates work was made available by Tifton’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA). The Tift County Foundation for Educational Excellence bought the lot for $10,000 and will repay the DDA after the house is sold.
The house is scheduled to be completed in summer 2011. Several students – including Mitchell and Harbin – will work as paid interns to complete the house after the current 10-week quarter ends in May.
When the zero net energy house is completed, the Green Construction class will turn its attention to a new project: the “Future Farmstead.” The project will be the centerpiece and showcase for the Agricultural Energy Innovation Center at the University of Georgia’s NESPAL center in Tifton.
Mitchell already is looking forward to the challenge.
“We’ve already been out there at the site,” he said. “We’ve been learning what we’re going to do, laying it out. We’ll learn even more with that one.”

Tagged: moultrie technical college, tifton netzero building