Until now, the biggest thing Kevin Matheny’s shop class had ever constructed was a dog house for the SPCA, and the future resident wasn’t going to be too particular about the digs. Matheny’s class curriculum broadened dramatically this year as thirteen of his Western Albemarle High School students tackled an enormous project in the form of a tiny house.
The small house movement in the U.S. is a trend toward simpler living in a smaller space. While houses under 1,000 square feet are considered “small” by advocates, a “tiny house” is generally under 400 square feet, and the WAHS tiny home is about 280 square feet. Complete with living and kitchen areas, a bathroom measuring four by eight feet, storage, and a loft bedroom to fit a queen-sized bed, the tiny house has all the basics covered. Building it has been no small feat.
“The students are learning everything from the ground up,” said Matheny, who has taught engineering and design at WAHS for 26 years. “I’m trying to teach them skills, not just hammers and nails.”
The students are learning skills aplenty, from framing to roofing, installing floorboards to hanging windows. After passing classes on how to safely handle every saw and drill in the school’s large workshop, students are able to work independently, and they use the equipment with assurance and purpose. Hana Lagana, a junior who first took shop class while a freshman and hopes to be a project manager next year, said she started with no knowledge.
“In past years I built a box, and then a bird house,” she said, “but never anything like this.” Lagana built the steps to the loft based on a design from the WAHS architecture class, and she’s been the point-woman for choosing and ordering all the plumbing fixtures. The experience has led to opportunities, as well. “This summer I got an internship with Artisan Construction, and I’ll be working as an estimator,” she said. Her favorite tool? “The pocket hole machine. It’s very cool.”
The first seeds of the tiny house idea began with the Albemarle County Public School system’s 2022 education initiative, which encourages schools to provide students with more hands-on, real-world experiences. “This is really preparing kids for college and the workforce, helping them develop self-reliance and teaching them to interact with adults,” said Matheny. Besides construction skills, the project is giving the students valuable experience in project management, design, budgeting, and how to take initiative.
The Associated General Contractors of Virginia (AGCVA) had a similar vision, and gave the group their start by donating funds to purchase a trailer as a mobile foundation for the house. “What’s becoming scarce is those hands-on people,” said Missy Gupton, regional manager for the AGCVA. “There are lots of project managers out there, but we need people who know how to swing hammers and cut boards, and young people just aren’t taught those skills these days.” Gupton helped organize her members’ donations to the house, and facilitated meetings between students and professionals that enlightened both.
Work was delayed for several weeks while the students followed policy by procuring three bids for the trailer. Of necessity, many of the materials used in the project were second hand, such as reclaimed lumber, or made from scratch, such as the doors for the kitchen cabinets. In the second quarter of the school year, after a donation of all of the framing materials from Yancey Lumber, the house began to take shape.
Connor Dillard, a senior who grew up working on a farm with prior experience building barns, did most of the framing of the house with a classmate, often during out-of-class hours. “It’s hard because there are so many little things to get done, but we spread the work out pretty well,” he said. One key lesson has been to take the time to do things carefully. “We put the roof on by ourselves, then we had to take if off and do it again,” he said, smiling. “But we got it right.”
Landon Smith, Dillard’s co-framer, said their teacher puts a strong emphasis on working independently. “Mr. Matheny played a big part in instructing us, but he almost never did the thing himself,” said Smith. “It was up to us. His phrase was ‘teacher-led, student-done.’”
Girls make up 40 percent of the class, some of whom tried out shop as an elective in middle school. Anna Dunn chose art and shop in 7th and 8th grades, and combined those skills to help design the tiny house using Google SketchUp, a web-based 3D modeling application. During a recent class period, Catherine Adams worked outside in the bright sunshine, operating a large miter saw while goggle-clad and wearing a dress. “It’s Senior Night,” she explained, “and I’m the goalie for the lacrosse team.” In the construction world, it’s sometimes necessary to multi-task.
In their effort to get the tiny house finished, the class was up against a hard deadline (the end of the school year) and a steep learning curve. Several local firms came to the rescue with donated services—electrical, plumbing, the installation of a standing seam metal roof—when professional know-how was required. The tiny house dream became reality in large part due to the generosity of more than 30 local contractors and suppliers who donated an estimated $40,000 worth of materials and labor to the project, including Robertson Electric, Craig Builders, Martin Roofing, ABC Supply, Ferguson Plumbing, and Albemarle Heating and Air.
The space inside the tiny house is light-filled and welcoming, featuring natural materials such as white pine bead-board walls, dark cherry tongue-and-groove hardwood flooring, and a maple butcher-block kitchen counter. Eight windows plus a glass-paned front door lend a roomy feel to the main living and sleeping areas, and a mini-split HVAC system keeps the place comfortable. Reclaimed barn wood accent walls and bamboo bathroom flooring add stylish touches.
One of the toughest problems for tiny homeowners is finding a piece of land on which to settle their house. Zoning restrictions often limit the minimum square footage of a house on a conventional lot, and if the house is on wheels, it may be disallowed as a “camper” by some ordinances, or turned away from RV parks if not sanctioned by the national RV association. But locals who stopped by to see the construction at WAHS ranged from intrigued to smitten. “As soon as we started building the house, people expressed interest, wanting to buy this one or order one for next year,” said Matheny.
After the final nail is hammered and the building duly celebrated at the close of the school year, Matheny and the juniors in his class will take stock and look ahead. The class hopes to sell their tiny house for around $30,000, and to use the proceeds to get a start on next year.