Sunday, May 12, 2013

The American College of the Building Arts

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that my own plastering education was a major challenge to undertake. Due to the general decline of the trade in the 1940’s the apprenticeship programs supported in plaster shops and by the unions largely disappeared. By the 1980’s only a handful of old timers were around and most of them were jealously guarding their knowledge for fear of losing the limited available work to a younger generation. However, if you were respectful, courteous and patient there were a few gems to extract.

Beginning in the 1990’s plaster began making a slow and steady return to architectural specification in the luxury residential, public/institutional, restoration and natural building sectors. Nevertheless, the training infrastructure that formerly existed remains to be rebuilt and this is a significant factor that has hampered its growth.

Yet there is reason for encouragement for the future of plaster education. In North America, plaster unions have been placing an increased emphasis on fundamental plaster education for their members and a vocational Job Corps pre-apprenticeship program designed to introduce young people to the trade. European institutions such as Les Compagnons in France and Il Centro Europeo Per i Mestieri del Patrimonio in Italy are working hard to keep the trades vibrant in their countries and have an increased program of outreach with related institutions around the world.

I would like to introduce a preeminent institution right here in the US dedicated to the artisan and the heritage building arts. The college combines theory and practice into a 4 year Bachelor degree program. Their mission is well articulated in the following statement:

“The American College of the Building Arts educates and trains artisans in the traditional building arts to foster exceptional craftsmanship and encourage the preservation, enrichment, and understanding of the world's architectural heritage through a liberal arts education.”

I have been privileged to support this institution in the past as a guest lecturer and sponsor of the annual Master of the Building Arts festival. It was an honor to be offered the position of Adjunct Professor of Plaster Working at the college and I look forward to rolling up my sleeves for the fall semester of 2013 engaging students in theory and practice.


Plaster traditionally has been considered an allied art to the field of architecture. Quite logically, the artisan should have a high level proficiency in architectural language. This is accomplished at ACBA through a core curriculum of Classical Architecture. There are several courses on architectural history, philosophy and design. Drawing, sketching, hand drafting are all requisite studies. Only after these skills have been mastered do students learn CAD as a communication not a design tool.

Academics such as English, foreign language, math and science are combined into a unified program of study shared by all students, tailored to support practical applications of the heritage trades. A total of 12 credit hours per semester are dedicated to theory and academics.


Plaster as any of the building trades is largely a tactile experience. Theory is put to practice daily under the guidance of experienced artisans. The freshman and sophomore years outline a combined study of brick masonry, architectural stone carving and flat plasterwork. This cross training in the “trowel trades” gives a strong foundation for the junior and senior years of specialization that for plaster includes mouldings and ornament.

In addition to the 6 credit hours of institutional practice per semester, 8-10 week summer internships are mandatory. Students have already been equipped with a fundamental level of trade knowledge and are placed so as to be an asset to the company they work with. 

Liaisons and Continuing Education

Exchange with plasterers and plaster companies, plaster manufacturers, related institutions, plaster unions are all very important for the students and the college itself. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have an interest in taking on an intern, sponsoring an event or creating a dialogue in regard to trade education.

As part of their commitment to outreach and development of the building arts, programs of continuing education for working professionals based at the college are being organized for the spring of 2014.

An overview of the Trowel Trades program including Plaster Working:

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Contributed by Patrick Webb


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