Tiny houses built by teenagers

aspen — Behind the wood shop at Aspen High School, the skeleton of a house awaits the touches that will make it a home: a mattress to go in the loft, a sink and refrigerator to anchor its kitchen, and its interior walls to be stained. .

The wood beams that make up its frame, mounted on a trailer, extend more than 13 feet off the ground and indicate a cozy 200-square-foot space that, come November, will be ready for an Aspen School District employee to move into. The construction crew — made up of students in the high school’s carpentry program — studies blueprints and adds windows among their other academic requirements, such as cramming engineering tests and turning in homework assignments on time.

Aspen is one of the state’s few mountain towns looking beyond traditional apartments and houses to try to make a dent in a sweeping housing crisis that has prevented many teachers and school staff from living where they teach and work. Local data from the County Clerk, Recorder and Assessor offices shows the median home price in Pitkin County is closer to about $2.3 million.

Both the Aspen School District and Summit School District, which includes Breckenridge, are turning to student-built tiny houses as new options for housing district employees. It’s the latest experiment among school districts in resort communities as they become more desperate to find affordable local places for employees to live, and one that also gives students an ambitious opportunity to learn construction and carpentry skills before they graduate.

That’s not a permanent solution, said Dave Pugh, superintendent of the Aspen School District.

Aspen High School carpentry teacher John Fisher, far right, helps his students build a tiny house as part of a carpentry class on the school’s campus, Sept. 12, 2023, in Aspen. The home, which is about 200 square feet, will be ready for a district employee to move in by November. (Hugh Carey, Colorado Sun)

“I see it as part of an overall desire to be smart and make sure people have a warm, safe, dry place,” he said, noting that tiny homes in Aspen could end up at two mobile home parks in Pitkin. The county and district-owned property accommodates seven additional units, according to local zoning rules.

About 35% of the Aspen School District’s 280 employees live in district-owned housing, but Pao expects that over the next decade the district will have to develop housing plans for all of its employees.

“It’s the first question every employee asks: Where will I live?” He said.

The idea for Aspen’s first tiny house was cemented after a weekend TV show inspired another education leader, who quickly became excited about the breadth of skills students could learn from building every inch of a tiny house.

“This is exactly what our kids can do,” said Ken Huptonstall, executive director of the Colorado River Board of Cooperative Educational Services, after watching the hour-long film “Tiny House Nation.” “They don’t have to build a 2,000-square-foot house to learn how to do electrical or plumbing. They can do it with a 300-square-foot house and learn the same thing.

Aspen High School students Max Sherman, left, and Eli Kissel build a tiny house as part of a carpentry class on the school’s campus, Sept. 12, 2023, in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, Colorado Sun)

At the time, Haptonstall focused on leveraging new ways for high school students to gain experience in career and technical education pathways, particularly in construction, a promising field in the area that pays a decent wage. He received a $350,000 grant in the fall of 2021 from the ZOMA Foundation, a charitable organization, to fund the construction of classrooms for tiny homes, which he originally thought could serve as low-income housing. The project is expanding through a $1.4 million Opportunity Now Colorado grant, part of $85 million in initiative funding programs that work to train and enhance the state’s workforce.

Colorado River BOCES, which supports five school districts with educational services and resources, has tiny houses in various stages of construction in Aspen, Parachute and Carbondale while Haptonstall is also talking to other districts, including the Summit School District, about potentially starting its own students to assemble tiny houses for their teachers and staff others. BOCES is intent on having students build six tiny houses a year, and a typical class generally takes about a year to build one house, Haptonstall said.

The tiny homes built by the students cost about $75,000, which includes the full set of materials and tools — much cheaper than the market price of about $200,000 where districts can cut labor costs, Haptonstall said.

Double up as housing supervisor and developer

The Aspen School District was the first district to work with BOCES to connect the need for students to master construction skills with the need for affordable housing for district employees. The district, which has about 1,600 students, is spending an estimated $65,000 on the house, which covers the cost of the building kit plus the trailer it sits on, tools, windows and appliances. That money comes from a $94.3 million bond approved by the community in 2020, which has risen to $114 million, in part due to higher investor interest, The Aspen Times reported. About $45 million of that amount is earmarked for teacher housing, Pugh said.

The Aspen School District invested in 102 staff units ranging from one-bedroom apartments to five-bedroom homes. The district charges rents between 20% and 25% of an employee’s monthly wage, Pugh said. This means teachers pay much less for housing in the district, with a first-year teacher making $50,750.

“I don’t see a day when we’ll be able to pay teachers enough to buy a house in the completely free market, but this isn’t just limited to Aspen,” Pugh said. “This says something about teacher salaries in Colorado, but more realistically it says a lot about property values ​​in Colorado.”

Aspen High School sophomore Riley Benson adjusts his helmet while building a tiny house with other students as part of a carpentry class on the school’s campus, Sept. 12, 2023, in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, Colorado Sun)

Another community with a shortage of affordable homes is Frisco, where Summit School District Superintendent Tony Byrd is looking to introduce a few tiny homes as a component of a broader district plan to create a mix of housing for employees. Planting tiny homes in the community is “creative and innovative,” Baird said. It has also become imperative for superintendents like him to prioritize workforce housing — a critical factor in the Summit School District’s efforts to recruit teachers.

“It’s crazy that school districts now have to be housing developers,” Baird said. “I think any superintendent would say, ‘Well, yeah, we’ll do this because we have to have employees, but this is a problem that’s much bigger than us.’ “It’s about the wealth gap in the United States.”

The Aspen School District has already invested in a second student tiny house to build for a staff member, while Baugh also aims to purchase another tiny house under construction by students in Parachute’s Garfield County School District 16 district.

However, Bo knows that a group of tiny houses is a “temporary solution.” Most people are unlikely to commit to staying in a tiny house long-term, he said.

“It depends on how good the view is,” Pugh joked.

“Life skills taught here”

The Aspen woodworking students learned many building basics as they watched their tiny house take shape, from measuring and cutting plywood to insulating the floor. Their mentor, John Fisher, a 77-year-old general contractor who has built or remodeled 53 custom homes in Aspen alone, guided them through every phase of construction.

There were also harder lessons learned along the way in their school’s wood technology room, which displays a sign that reads “Life Skills Taught Here.”

For example, it’s important to consider the seasons when diving into construction. Students at Aspen High School, who began the construction process about a year ago, had to repeatedly shovel snow and ice from the trailer before picking up any tools once winter arrived.

“It was a lot of work before we started,” said Max Sherman, a junior who quickly graduated from making pizza boards and wooden bowls to join the tiny house construction crew.

He remembers wondering how he and his classmates would finish building the tiny house by the end of the last school year. They have since begun working on the house again this fall, with Sherman narrowing his focus.

“When you go step by step, it doesn’t seem as scary as if you looked at the whole project in one project,” he said.

Another hard lesson: finding a way forward when trends don’t work.

Eli Kessel, who largely took the lead on the tiny house project, was put in quick problem-solving mode when the blueprints guiding the construction process were beyond measurable. Kessel and Fisher, career and technical education teachers at Aspen High School who focuses on teaching woodworking and drafting, had to expand their work based on the photos, but that particular hurdle didn’t dampen Kessel’s enthusiasm.

Aspen High School student Eli Kissel installs window sealants on the outside of a tiny house he is building with classmates on the school’s campus, Sept. 12, 2023, in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, Colorado Sun)

“It doesn’t really feel like a classroom,” he said. “You’re not really doing classroom stuff. You’re still learning a lot, but you’re getting a lot of hands-on experience.”

Students like sophomore Riley Benson, who plans to pursue a career in pipe welding, overcame a personal challenge while working on the tiny house. Benson, who is afraid of heights, helped build the second floor of the house, standing only on lengths of plywood and ladders.

“There wasn’t any real pressure for me to face that fear, but I still wanted to do it,” Benson said. I put pressure on myself to do it, and then I motivated myself and pushed myself.

The students’ to-do list is long, with flooring, siding, plumbing, electrical, roofing, cabinet installation and other major tasks still waiting to be tackled.

Fisher wants his students to build skills that will last long after high school. The tiny house ranks alongside other projects that have challenged his students over the years, such as kitchen cabinets, dressing tables, and folding desks.

John Fisher, a carpentry teacher at Aspen High School, helps his students build a tiny house as part of a carpentry class on the school’s campus, Sept. 12, 2023, in Aspen. Fisher has been teaching in Aspen since 1970. “I want the kids (in my class) to learn something they can use to be employable,” Fisher said of the “Life Skills Taught Here” sign on the classroom door. (Hugh Carey, Colorado Sun)

During his 53 years of teaching high school, he saw graduates excel as general contractors, cabinet makers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

He said one of the main points he learns in his classes is “the feeling of knowing that they can do the work, the feeling of knowing that they have some skills that they can take with them.”

Fisher has long been a homemaker in Aspen — he built his home in 1988 after spending eight years in a duplex in Aspen that he also built for his family — and now he’s giving away the kind of home to area employees he once embraced. He lived in a mobile home during his first four years teaching in Aspen, earning between $6,000 and $7,000 a year.

“Teaching doesn’t provide a lot of income, so I think it’s great that teachers have the opportunity to buy or live in something they can afford,” Fisher said.

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