Students 'raise the roof' with Shelter Institute

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WOOLWICH — After wading through a lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem, a small group of Mt. Ararat Middle School students got to put it to use by swinging mallets and raising a timber frame structure.
The students, through the Riverview Foundation’s Access to Inspiration and Motivation after-school program, were hosted by the heads of the Shelter Institute in Woolwich. Pat Hennin and his son, Gaius Hennin, showed their young visitors how math and science can be applied outside the classroom to build a 100-square-foot timber frame structure, similar to a garden shed. The Hennins incorporated the skills of cooperation and some basic engineering along the way.
“They called up and they were looking for an interesting activity, an interesting field trip,” Gaius Hennin said of Riverview. “We thought it could work nicely.”
Andy Mishkin of Riverview said the AIM program “gives the kids a productive place to go after school.”
Every month Riverview takes the students on a field trip. “We try to make sure the field trip has some value, either educationally or environmentally,” Mishkin said. “We go hiking, we go snowshoeing.”
The Hennins’ business has “a really excellent reputation,” he explained, adding that “they’re practically a service to the community in terms of the kind of comprehensive educations they give.”
Not only were the kids having fun, but they were learning important skills, Mishkin said: “It gives them a chance to see a whole different way of doing things. Now they’ll know that there’s something called a mortise and a tenon, they’ll know about some of the ways they did all this (work) … They’re doing something together, they’re getting some role modeling. There’s all kinds of things going on here.”
The Shelter Institute was founded by Pat Hennin and his late wife, Patsy, in 1974 and runs housebuilding courses for the general public, along with hosting school trips. The Hennin-founded Hennin Post & Beam, Woodbutcher Tools and Midcoast Realty also stand on the 873 Route 1 Shelter Institute campus.
Pat Hennin said 30,000 people have graduated from Shelter’s house design course, one of many classes the institute offers. Once a New York Times feature came out in 1975, people started coming from around the world.
Common sense construction has been at the core of Pat’s teaching.
“We were trying to teach people to understand the physics of what’s happening in the house, just exactly what are all the forces that happen,” Pat Hennin said of Shelter’s tried-and-true approach. “And then we quantified those forces in ways that people could understand, so that professional carpenters who had been building forever suddenly would come here and actually learn how to do it. Whereas before they were just mimicking their father … now all of a sudden they could invent something new, because we taught them how to do the math.”
Gaius Hennin, a civil engineer, and his siblings Blueberry and Raoul grew up amidst the principles of self-sufficiency their parents fostered.
“Just thinking back to my own elementary school time,” he said, “it would’ve been great if we had had the opportunity to see things like math in a realistic setting, rather than straight out of the textbook. There’s so many opportunities in housebuilding for that to happen.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or
DSC02961.JPGJenny Thenor, a 6th grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, hammers a peg at the Shelter Institute in Woolwich last week. Shelter co-founder Pat Hennin looks on. (Lear photo)

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.