Those lamenting the death of the American craftsman will be heartened to hear of the opening of the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA).

The school, which touts itself as the only four-year, degree-granting program of its type in the country, began its first semester this fall with 14 students, ranging in age from 18 to 43. The school offers six majors: Architectural Stone, Carpentry, Masonry, Ornamental Ironwork, Plasterwork, and Timber Framing. All students are required to take a minor in Construction Management, as well as classes in math and English.

“We emphasize that working with your hands doesn't mean you're just a laborer,” says Carter Hammett-McGarry, dean for students at ACBA. “We want our graduates to have an equal voice [in the design and building process] with contractors and architects.”

What is now ACBA was originally founded in 1998 as the School of the Building Arts (SBA). According to Hammett-McGarry, SBA was established in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, when it became clear that Charleston, S.C., didn't have the craftspeople to restore the historic buildings damaged in that storm. “You had to go to Europe to get artisans to do the restoration work,” she says.

The curriculum is set up to first teach students what Hammett-McGarry calls “the techniques of the old masters,” before learning to use power tools. “It's important that they have an understanding of what the masters were doing, how they were doing it, and the difference that attention to detail makes,” she says.

Students begin by working on buildings on the school's campus; the plasterwork students, for instance, kicked the semester off by plastering the walls in their workshop. Eventually, Hammett-McGarry says, teams of students will go out into the community to practice their crafts, with an emphasis on service learning.

Hammett-McGarry also stresses that, despite its roots in historic preservation, ACBA is just as useful for those interested in bringing true craftsmanship to contemporary buildings.