NESS CITY — Under the watchful eyes of their teachers, students drilled dozens of screws into metal frame after metal frame Wednesday morning at Ness City High School as they began a project that will provide vacation housing in Colorado and experience that will last the students a lifetime.
While 6A and 5A schools like Hutchinson and McPherson take on large building projects and complete an entire house over the school year, that's not feasible for smaller schools like Ness City.
Instead, these mostly 3- 2- and 1A schools are taking on a 3-1A-sized building projects — tiny houses.
Ness City High School hosted a workshop for several area schools on Wednesday to share knowledge and kick off a yearlong tiny house building project. Each school will complete a house with the same floor plan, but will personalize some design elements along the way.
Eight schools will take part in the project, although not all were at Wednesday’s workshop. The schools include Paola, Bonner Springs, Tescott, Stafford, Fredonia, Anderson County and Rittenburg, Wisc. Students from Scott City and Fort Hays State University’s Applied Technology Department also worked on the homes Wednesday, and faculty from schools like Pratt High School were there to observe.
"We've had a lot of interest," said Brent Kerr, tech ed instructor at Ness City High School. "Today is like a workshop where they learn tips and tricks. Some things are easier to show instead of tell. I hope my job today is to make it easier."
Students learn every aspect of home building on a manageable scale — cabinetry, heating and air, electrical and more.
Ness City High School is in its fourth year of building a tiny house, but this is the first year they've brought other schools in to learn the process firsthand.
"Only 40 percent of jobs require a four-year degree, so why would we push 100 percent of kids to go to college? We need tradespeople worse than anything," Kerr said.
Each of the floor plans are identical, so all schools can troubleshoot and share useful information with each other as they build.
Houses will be completed by the end of the school year in May. Then, the trailers will carry the houses to Leadville, Colo., where they'll be rented out to vacationers in an RV park.
Kerr met the RV park's owner at a tiny house conference in Colorado a few years back. The partnership works because the students and administration can focus on building the houses, not trying to sell a completed one.
"If you look around town, you'll see a lot of houses for sale. We would have a tough time selling a full-size house, but we already have a buyer for all eight tiny houses," Kerr said.
The profit from the houses goes back into the program to purchase tools as well as into a scholarship fund. Last year, a tech ed student received a $1,000 scholarship.
The trailers for each tiny house were made by Trailer Made Custom Trailers, Olathe, Colo., known in the industry as the “tiny house experts,” owner Damon DeChamp said. He and his wife and company co-founder, Natalie, have been on such TV shows as “Tiny House Nation,” “Tiny House Hunters” and “Tiny House Big Living.”
He’s worked with Kerr and the Ness City students since they started building tiny houses and said Ness City High is the second-most prolific tiny-house building school in the country. His company works with secondary and post-secondary schools in Texas, California, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
“Consider this a living lab. It’s not a full-scale house like there is across the road there, but it has all the things in it that a full-size home will without the component of being in a remote location,” he said.
He doesn’t see the tiny house trend disappearing any time soon, either. He said his company is slated to build 200 tiny houses in the next year and recently participated in a project in Kansas City building tiny homes for veterans.
And even if the trend does fade, the skills the students learn will not, he said. The students agreed.
"It's really useful,” said JC Payne, a sophomore at Ness City High School. “We learned how to build stairs, so now I know how to do it myself. I can save a lot of money to build my own instead of paying someone else to do it for me," Payne said.
Scott City senior Emmanuel Frances Aguilar sees tiny houses as a trend for his generation.
“It may be small houses are going to be the future type of housing. Not every millennial or Gen Z student will be able to afford a $100,000 to $200,000 house, so it will be a good solution. This will give us an opportunity to learn how to build the whole darn thing,” Aguilar said.