While spreading skim coat, Arlington High sophomore Anthony Whitis almost gets himself stuck in a corner as Caden Smith watches while they work on a tiny home. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

‘Emotionally connected’ students build tiny houses for homeless

ARLINGTON — Geometry class filled with the pounding of hammers and buzzing of saws Tuesday morning.

Students with white hardhats and hammers hanging from black tool belts cut boards and roofing material. They vacuumed inside a 12-by-10-foot shelter and spread skim coat on the floor. One student measured openings for two windows and a front door. Then, while others worked on wooden sheds outside, a team of five got ready to take apart the shelter so they can haul it.

Students from Arlington High School’s geometry in construction class are participating in a statewide competition. So are teams from Mountlake Terrace and Snohomish high schools.

In all, 20 high schools and five groups from community and technical colleges plan to gather in Olympia on Monday. Each team is building a tiny house without the plumbing and electricity. The houses will be donated as transitional shelters for homeless people in Seattle.

“I hope that it goes to people who are going to use it to get them into the right place, and that it will give them warmth while they’re looking for a job or doing what they need to do,” Anthony Whitis said.

The 16-year-old used to go to job sites with his parents when they worked in construction, and those memories inspired him. Everyone on the team did a little bit of everything, he said.

Grady Falk, 16, cut roofing material Tuesday. The team has seven hours to assemble and finish their house in Olympia. They’ll add the roof there. It needs to be ready. Falk enjoys hands-on learning, but said the best part is helping others.

Caden Smith, 16, is thinking of becoming a paramedic but knows construction skills will open more options. He’s proud to work for a good cause. Classmate Willy Hillman, 15, said every step of the project has been fun.

Megan Scott is one of two girls in the class. The 14-year-old didn’t expect to do much construction but has learned to enjoy the work. She’s been measuring and cutting. The team helped her break out of her shell, she said.

Megan hopes the tiny house can be a symbol.

“I’d like it to mean unity in the community,” she said. “We’re just a bunch of high school students, but we can come together and do this.”

The students have a personal investment in the tiny house, instructors Mike Gudgeon and Scott Striegel said. The teens know someone will live there, and their effort reflects it, Striegel said. It lets them practice building to code, on a small scale.

“If you look past the math standards and the construction standards, it’s really about how they can impact their community,” Gudgeon said. “Even though this is going to Seattle, we have the same problems here in Arlington. As soon as they got emotionally connected, their craftsmanship went up because they care.”

At Snohomish High School, advanced manufacturing teacher Matt Johnson is learning alongside his students. His background is in machining. He hadn’t built a home before, but wanted to give his students the chance to develop different skills. So after consulting with an advisory committee, he let the students take a vote.

They wanted the chance to build something others would use.

“I’m willing to take risks, recognizing it is outside my normal skill set,” Johnson said. “… I wanted them to walk away with an experience they will remember.”

That has come with its own set of lessons. During a work party Saturday, the students had to start from scratch on a roof they’d spent days creating.

“We have had all sorts of little hiccups along the way,” Johnson said. “We are all learning together here. The learning that comes from experience and teachable moments can become lifelong lessons.”

Fortunately, he said, there has been some professional guidance. Gordon Cole and Erin VerHoeven of Corstone Contractors in Snohomish as well as the Longview-based Building In Youth have provided help.

By 4 a.m. Monday, Johnson and several students will be headed to Olympia where they’ll put the finishing touches on their tiny house. The students say they are interested to see what other schools come up with.

Senior Sam Bentz has found a niche in supply chain management, making sure what is needed is available. Though it’s small in scale, the tiny house gives insight into the need for organizing.

Though the house will end up in Seattle, Jakeb Helton, a senior at Snohomish High, knows the homeless issue reaches well beyond big cities, including his hometown.

It is nice to help in a meaningful way, he said.

“The community seems to enjoy it and so do we,” he said.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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