An Unconventional Entry into the Building Industry

By Joseph Laquatra, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University

I have been involved in the residential construction industry since I was a child. My Uncle Jack noticed that I was handy while I was in grade school. So, he would take me along on his service repairs at the apartments he owned. I have fond memories of him teaching me how to use a hammer and saw and how to repair concrete.

As I grew older, when my summer jobs weren’t in fast food, they were in construction. My undergraduate studies at Cornell weren’t in construction. But, when I graduated, I joined the Volunteers in Service to America and worked on a migrant farmworker housing project in Utah. Then, I moved on to in-home improvement and home construction for low-income households in Western New York State. I was a private contractor for a year, and then worked as Housing Director at a multi-service nonprofit agency. Then, I learned about a graduate program in housing at Cornell. I applied, was accepted and earned my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in housing policy. My M.S. and Ph.D. theses were on various aspects of residential energy efficiency.

While I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I was offered a faculty position as a housing specialist in Cornell’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis in 1984. In September 1986, I attended the National Association of Home Builders’ construction technology conference, where I met HBI President and CEO Philip Polivchak. I had recently read an article announcing the start of a new HBI initiative, the Graduate Builder Institute (GBI), later named the Certified Graduate Builder Program. Phil wanted to partner with universities to offer the program across the United States. We began working together through my work at Cornell and we started hosting the New York State Builders Association program at Cornell for many years. Our relationship lasted through my years as an assistant, associate and full professor.

In the early 1990s, I was asked to help revise the GBI course I taught, Energy Efficient Construction. At that time, after the Eastern European Wall fell, HBI received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to create the American Polish Home Builders Institute (APHBI) in Gdańsk. In the fall of 1993, Phil asked me to travel to Poland and teach Energy Efficient Construction for Polish builders, architects, engineers and government officials in Poland. The course text had been translated into Polish and I taught it through an interpreter.

Coincidentally, I was eligible for a sabbatical leave from Cornell in 1994. Phil asked me if I would serve as a Scholar-in-Residence at APHBI, which I did from January – June 1994. I traveled the length and breadth of Poland and gave lectures on residential energy efficiency and indoor air quality at technical universities and at venues available to builders, architects, engineers, and government officials. After I returned to the United States, Phil and I wrote a paper on that project, which we presented at an international housing conference in Bejing, China, and later published in the Building Research Journal.

My entry into the residential construction industry may not be the traditional way, but it is a career of passion and perseverance to ensure that more individuals are exposed to the industry and understand that it can be a very rewarding career. From swinging a hammer as a young child to teaching Energy Efficient Construction as a professor, I have remained committed to the building industry. How are you giving back to the building industry?