Working on tiny house reaps big skills for Basalt students
Once completed, house will be auctioned off to keep program funded
When Edgar Rojo returned to his alma mater high school in Basalt as a teacher of the woods and construction classes, he wanted to put the kids to work on something hands-on rather than spend a lot of time staring at books.
He hit the jackpot. Thanks to some good fortune, he procured a trailer and some materials needed to start construction of a tiny home. Roughly 34 students are sharpening their construction skills building a residence that Rojo hopes to eventually auction off to raise funds for another project.
The trailer and structural insulated panels were donated to Glenwood High School a few years ago for a woodworking class, but they sat unused after an instructor departed.
“I heard about it, and I got excited, being a builder,” Rojo said. “I brought it over last year, then COVID hit, and I got stuck with a trailer and no kids.”
Rules have eased a bit this school year. There has been more in-person instruction, and the work on the tiny house is in a safe, outdoor environment.
“Most classes don’t get to fool around with a $50,000 project,” Rojo said. He credited BHS principal Peter Mueller for being a big supporter of the acquisition of the trailer and materials from a sister school.
The plan is to have the tiny house framed this fall. Then custom work will begin on the interior during winter.
On one recent day at the work site, members of a class were using straps and muscle power to raise walls. Some students buzzed around with glue guns to secure the walls once they were set in place; others climbed scaffolding to help steady the panels.
Senior Jack Hamm is putting the skills he’s learned while working on a ranch into use at the tiny house.
“It’s fun because we actually get to go out and do stuff and it’s not sitting in a classroom writing down equations,” Hamm said. “It’s going out and learning stuff. A lot of us are probably going to go out and work construction at some point.”
While he has worked a lot with tools out of necessity on the ranch, he said he’s sharpened and expanded his skills working on the house. He’s been reading and applying blueprints. He’s learned how to use saws better. And he’s learned the proper way to put up panels.
He plans on sticking with the project both semesters.
“We’re going to be doing this all year,” Hamm said. “If we can get the roof up before winter, I’m sure we can work on the interior and make it look nice and cozy.”
While Hamm and most classmates were pulling wall panels into place, senior Rachel Johnson was measuring a specific space and then cutting a 2-by-4 for a snug fit between the wall panels where there will be a window. The 2-by-4 will help stabilize the wall and provide a foundation that can be drilled into once the window is installed, she explained.
Johnson said she is comfortable working with power tools from prior work she’s done with her dad.
“I helped build my current house, and I helped build a bunk bed with my dad recently, so I’m definitely in that world of construction,” she said. “This is more like, what do I need to do to help out the group, and then doing it.”
Rojo said one of his big focuses in the class is getting students to be aware of what is going on around them so they can all stay safe and coordinate their efforts. It’s a lesson that Johnson has learned well.
“It’s working together as a team and trying not to kill each other,” she said with a laugh.
Johnson said she isn’t sure she will make a career of construction, but the class is helping hone skills she will need for do-it-yourself projects throughout her life.
Rojo got into the trades after he graduated from high school. He’s a master craftsman with Renaissance Woodworking in El Jebel. He regularly works at high-end residential projects in Aspen.
Rojo decided four years ago to take time out of his construction career to teach at Basalt High School three days per week, two classes on each of the days. It’s a way of giving back to his school. It’s rewarding and worth the financial sacrifice, he said.
In addition, he believes the number of people working the trades in the Roaring Fork Valley is dwindling so he hopes the classes inspire some students to pursue a career in construction.
“I think if anything, it’s planting the seed with the kids,” Rojo said.
Work on the tiny house in the back parking lot of the school has attracted a lot of attention among students.
“I’ve got more kids wanting to take class than I can handle,” he said.
Rojo receives help supervising the work from volunteer Dock O’Connell, a retired engineer who spent a career building power plants. He said he enjoys working with the young men and women and witnessing them advancing their skills. It was rewarding, he said, to see a student in the class tell a friend who isn’t in the class that he helped put up a wall.
The 8-foot wide, 40-foot long tiny house will remain permanently on the trailer — not to be moved around like an RV — so there is some mobility. Big metal screws anchor the foundation onto the trailer.
The house will have a loft to take advantage of space. In addition to customizing the interior, the students will furnish it. The class receives donations of furniture from contacts of Rojo’s in the construction field. The students dismantle the furniture and reuse the materials for new pieces. A big emphasis is reusing materials or using locally milled wood to boost the sustainability, Rojo said.
Rojo will use his contacts in the construction industry to have plumbers and electricians come to prep the tiny house. He also welcomes donations of materials from the construction industry.
There isn’t a specific plan yet for when or how to auction the tiny home, but Rojo is optimistic about the prospects, given the housing shortage in the region.
No matter how it shakes out, Rojo believes the effort has already been worth it, for the kids as well as for him.
“For me, it’s the feel-good aspect of it,” he said.
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