College of Building Arts is rising on a strong foundation

The American College of the Building Arts will relocate to the old Trolley Barn on Meeting Street. (Wade Spees/File)

Charleston's most singular higher education institution had a big year in 2014, as it finalized plans to move onto a new campus and worked out its lingering financial problems. The American College of the Building Arts can expect another momentous year in 2015, as it sets up shop in the comparatively spacious Trolley Barn on upper Meeting Street.

The ACBA is the only institution in the nation that offers four-year courses in traditional building techniques, such as those used to construct the residences and public buildings that define Charleston's Old and Historic District.

The school draws inspiration from those structures, and its students have gained practical knowledge in the traditional methods of building - including masonry, ironwork, carpentry and plastering - as they worked on the restoration of the city's Old Jail, which had been derelict for decades.

The jail has been largely transformed as a result, and serves as the ACBA's administrative headquarters and primary campus. Classes began in 2005.

Students approach their subjects through classroom instruction and hands-on work. The program demands a high level of practical technical expertise, and its graduates are in demand for exacting restoration projects. That's particularly true in Charleston because of its wealth of historic structures and the city's commitment - private and public - to preservation.

As Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said, "People come from all over the world to experience the building arts here in Charleston. Now they will come to Charleston to study those arts and to preserve them and to carry them back out into the world. The American College of the Building Arts will be Charleston's gift to America."

In November, the college acquired the Trolley Barn for the nominal sum of $10 from the city of Charleston, which has provided the school essential support throughout its existence.

That enabled ACBA's sale of the Old Jail, providing money to renovate the Trolley Barn and thereby double the existing instructional area. And it has been able to pay off old debts as it readies its move to the new campus in 2015.

The college also sold a portion of the Meeting Street property, on which a private developer will build a dormitory for students. Currently, 40 students are enrolled at the ACBA, and more are expected for the next term.

Charleston is the perfect place for the American College of the Building Arts, and the 19th century Trolley Barn is the ideal setting for the college. All that remains to finalize the groundwork for the ACBA is completion of its accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, which will make students eligible for federal loans. That work should be largely completed during 2015.

The early years of the ACBA have been instructive as to the difficulty of starting a school from scratch. But the hardest part has been accomplished. As president of the college, retired Army Gen. Colby Broadwater has ensured fiscal accountability by cutting expenses and streamlining the administration.

As the school keeps alive long-proven traditional methods of building, its graduates are being given the skills to preserve the historic fabric of Charleston and of structures around the nation.

With this year's move to a new campus, the American College of the Building Arts will have arrived in every sense of the word.