Ryan Woodall started taking ironworking classes two years ago with only a hammer, an anvil and a metal file. In time, he grew used to the heft of the hammer, the clangor of the workshop and the withering blast of the furnace.
Woodall, 23, is one of three juniors this year in the iron program at the American College of the Building Arts, a one-of-a-kind private school that offers bachelor's degrees of applied science in architectural carpentry, architectural stone, classical architecture, forged architectural ironwork, masonry, plasterwork and timber framing.
The college has about 75 students enrolled this year in programs that teach traditional, meticulous crafts. Its goal is to reach an enrollment of 180 to 200 students.
Founded in 2004, the college has boasted a 100 percent job placement rate within students' fields of study for its last three graduating classes.
Alumni have gone on to lucrative careers in preservation or high-end building, and some, including Woodall, have traveled abroad to learn from the best. Woodall spent his summer in Italy learning from three master blacksmiths, gaining knowledge of European styles and techniques.
President Lt. Gen. Colby Broadwater III said he came to ACBA in 2008 after a 34-year military career because he believed in its unique mission — and now he sees it reaching some of its goals.
"I saw the potential of this college and the relationship between master and student on my very first visit," he said.
The college hit a major milestone this September, earning national accreditation from the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.
The distinction was made possible in part because of the school's 2016 relocation to the city's old trolley barn at 649 Meeting St., which city officials sold to the nonprofit private college for $10.
The school previously occupied the dank confines of the Old City Jail on Magazine Street and at times other warehouse spaces outside downtown. Its newly renovated location has high ceilings, spacious workshops and a well-lit entryway that displays students' recent projects.
In addition to lending an air of legitimacy, accreditation opens up new opportunities for foundation-based donations and grant writing, enables student to apply for federal financial aid, and allows some students to make an easier transition to graduate programs at other colleges.
The renovated facility and the accreditation bode well for the school's future, according to Ralph Muldrow, a College of Charleston architecture professor who lent his support in the fledgling college's early days.
To Muldrow's knowledge, the American College of the Building Arts is unique in the United States in that it offers a four-year program in traditional building arts with an accompanying liberal arts education. Similar schools tend to be more narrowly focused.
"They tend to be two-year, sometimes technical colleges," Muldrow said. "There have been some that tried and failed because of the expense and space needs."
The liberal-arts approach was attractive to Patricia Willis, a 22-year-old native of Pine Mountain, Ga., now completing her senior year in the timber framing program.
Willis said she started college as an art major elsewhere, but she quickly became disenchanted when she saw classmates shifting into majors that they hated in the name of financial security.
Drawing inspiration from her father's work as a general contractor, Willis started looking for a way to combine her artistic sensibilities with the practicality of her father's career — and found it in the timber framing program. She is considering pursuing an MBA after graduating.
"This was kind of the golden medium for me," she said. "In my mind, this is creating a psychologically beneficial built environment, and you're combining art into the craft."
The college charges close to $20,000 per year in tuition and awards about $250,000 worth of scholarships every year. For comparison, undergraduate tuition at the College of Charleston is about $12,400 per year for in-state students and $31,600 per year for out-of-state students.
The college has not raised tuition in 10 years. Today, the college gets about one-third of its budget from tuition and two-thirds from philanthropy, according to Chief Academic Officer Wade Razzi. As students become eligible to receive federal aid under the new accreditation, the funding mix likely will come closer to a 50-50 split, he said.