Student-Built Solar Tree House Opens Job Opportunities

The last place you’d look for a solar-powered home would be in a tree. But with a little imagination and tons of collaboration, the Rhode Island Builders Association (RIBA) found a way to pull it off – twice.

Hundreds of Rhode Island trade school students pitched in to build two adjoining tree houses.

Hundreds of Rhode Island trade school students collaborated to build two adjoining solar-powered tree houses.

Earlier this month, two solar tree houses highlighted this year’s Rhode Island Home Show. Even more remarkable than the size of each house (1,500+ square feet) was that they were built through a joint effort of hundreds of students from different schools across the state.

RIBA’s seemingly simple idea — partnering with a handful of trade schools to increase awareness of the state’s construction trade education programs — quickly grew into an unprecedented statewide collaboration of 20 schools and more than 300 students.

“At first, we thought maybe four or five [schools] would participate in the home show,” said Lou Cotoia, an RIBA member who directed much of the coordination with the student groups and the show’s sponsoring organizations. “But once word hit the street about what we were doing, I had calls coming in non stop from people who wanted to get involved.”

Funded in part through the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training and the U.S. Department of Labor, the project relied heavily on the efforts of students at various carpentry schools throughout the state who were assigned to build a specific section of the tree houses. The pre-build was done at each school’s respective campus, and the finished sections were transported to the Providence Convention Center for final assembly.

Though the convention center couldn’t accommodate trees big enough to support the houses, builders and consumers were nevertheless impressed with the high level of craftsmanship and teamwork.

Not all of the students who participated in the show were aspiring carpenters. Cotoia, whose full-time position is a sales contractor for Arnold Lumber, also enlisted electrical students to learn about and manage the solar installation, welding students for the steel fabrication, horticulture students to help manage the landscape exhibits, and other students who handled the painting and other miscellaneous jobs.

But it didn’t stop there.

Graphic arts students designed t-shirts for the show volunteers. Broadcasting students teamed up with local radio stations to do live broadcasts at the show. Even culinary students did all of the cooking for show volunteers.

“This year’s show was one of the best we’ve ever had,” said RIBA EO John Marcantonio. “The high-quality work of these students was amazing, and the public’s response and support was fantastic. These experiences have helped the schools realize that our industry is committed to them and to the development and future placement of their students.”

The tree houses will be reconstructed at the Providence Boys and Girls Club.

The tree houses will be reconstructed at the Providence Boys and Girls Club.

During each of the four days of setup and construction leading up to the show, Cotoia estimates between 10 and 20 RIBA members continually stopped by to visit with the students and “scout for future employees.”

Cotoia says at least five full-time job opportunities and dozens of internships were offered as a result of the members’ scouting efforts, and several more job offers are in the works.

“Having worked with many of these student programs before, I knew we had several superstars who would end up with job offers and internships as a result of their work during the home show,” Cotoia said. “It was amazing to see how it all turned out.”

At the conclusion of the home show, the tree houses were disassembled and transported to the Providence Boys and Girls Club, where the students are scheduled to reassemble them next month.

Check out this time lapse video of the home show set up.

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