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Tiny house design project for students a perfect match for Wando High School

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Tiny house - Grace Holley.jpg

Wando High School architecture student Grace Holley took an agricultural theme for her tiny house plan and called it "The Barn." Her plan was among the ones judges considered in the mix before making a decision. David Quick/Staff

Tenth-grader Hannah Kenis hasn’t decided what career path to take yet, but she already has a big feather to put in her hat for architecture and engineering.

Last week, a panel of judges grappled over 32 designs by Wando High School students for a tiny house, which is intended to be built on a local, nonprofit farm in June.

The initiative by the Charleston Home Builders Association is an effort to encourage students to pursue careers in the many professions and trades involved in the construction of homes.

Tiny house - Hannah Kenis presenting .jpg

Of the 32 tiny house plans presented by Wando High School architecture students, judges selected those created by 10th-grader Hannah Kenis of Mount Pleasant. David Quick/Staff 

The panel’s selection of Kenis’ design is just the midpoint in a school year-long effort that intertwined the project into the school’s architectural and engineering curriculum.

In fact, the project is expected to culminate shortly after the school year ends. That's when the association, some of its members and Wando plan to coordinate two, one-week sessions of building the tiny house on a small farm in the Phillips community of Mount Pleasant in June, contingent on Charleston County permitting it.

On the night after the judging, Kenis was shocked and delighted to hear that her plans had been chosen. The honor carries with it a $6,000 college scholarship, though she will only get half of it if she does not participate in the construction of the house.

“I’m really grateful for this opportunity,” says Kenis, adding that she really enjoys the architecture class and that the project opened her eyes to concept of tiny houses.

Tiny house - the scale models.jpg

Among the first challenges for the Wando High School architecture students was having teams of two students each create scale models for the tiny houses. The three top models (shown here) were then used by all the students for creating tiny house plans. David Quick/Staff

Real life problem-solving

The genesis of the outreach started last year when Shawn Doogan, vice president of operations with Southeastern Family Homes, approached the Charleston County School of the Arts to work on renderings for a new development, offering monetary scholarships for the best ones.

“You could see that the kids get involved and did a phenomenal job,” recalls Doogan, adding that he wanted to take the effort further.

Doogan worked with the homebuilder’s association’s Community & Membership Outreach Director Ashley Valdivieso on the effort and she galvanized the initiative, which they expect will continue in future years.

Early last summer, they approached Wando about collaborating on a tiny house project in the 2017-18 school year.

Katie Johnston, an architecture and engineering teacher at Wando, says the staff was already planning to build a tiny house, so when the idea was pitched, they were on board. Johnston, who also is a registered architect in South Carolina, proposed working into the curriculum.

"It was a pretty seamless move of getting my curriculum to align with the standards of what this project would bring,” says Johnston.

“Tiny houses are this crazy phenomenon in architecture and on HGTV. It’s something nice and tangible that the students can really dive into and understand,” says Johnston.

Ambassadors for trades

For Doogan, the effort is not only a way to “pay it forward” but to attract more talent to the disciplines of home building, particularly the construction trades.

“What I’m seeing in the industry is there’s such a lack of the next generation of trades. It’s falling by the wayside. I grew up working with my hands. I never went to school. If there’s a way to open doors for these kids and get them to the next step,” says Doogan, who hopes to score some free tools and belts for the youth participants who build the house next summer.

Valdivieso underscores the importance of bringing awareness to a new generation of the need and opportunities involved in the homebuilding industry, partly with well-trained and educated people.

“I was always taught and we've long been taught that it’s imperative to go to college, but the thing is that college isn’t for everyone and there are so many ways to make a living without getting a four-year degree. What we’re running into now is that there are no apprentices to work under the guys who are in their late 50s and 60s, and even 70s, to pass their trade down to because we’ve all been trained to work behind the desk," says Valdivieso.

"We’re trying to open their minds to opportunities. There’s so many jobs involved in homebuilding, from drawing the house to handing the keys over to the owner."

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Before judging started, Wando High School architecture teacher Katie Johnston brought representatives from the Charleston Home Builders Association up to speed on the tiny house designing. David Quick/Staff

Project with a purpose

When Johnston put the word out to the Wando High community for possible locations for the tiny house, one of their own came forward as an option.

Horticulture teacher Katie Donohoe started a nonprofit, Growing Minds, while taking a break from teaching in 2014. Earlier this year, she bought a 4-acre property in the Phillips Community in Mount Pleasant.

Donohoe recalls the property was owned by Frances Causey Barrett, who had planted muscadine grapes and pecan trees on one part of the acreage, most of which is wooded. Donohoe promised Barrett that she would keep the grapes and trees and not sell to a developer to be bulldozed.

“I’ve been wanting to have an educational farm for 20 years,” says Donohoe, who plans to create a teaching farm on the cleared acre that demonstrates practices of permaculture, such as perennial, polycultural “food forests.”

The tiny house would be used to allow a student or veteran to live on the farm.

Donohoe, who is on medical leave from Wando, served as the “client” for students, who designed the tiny house based on her wanting it to be a showcase for sustainability. Among the features she requested were solar panels, a composting toilet, a gray water system and using sustainable building products, such as bamboo.

Johnston says the collaborators already are starting recruiting efforts for the building effort in the summer and she sees it as ideal educational opportunity.

“Education is easier, by far, to understand when you have hands-on production. When you actually make it real, you see light bulbs going off a thousand fold. That’s what architecture and engineering schools are pushing for, not to leave it in the classroom.”

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A panel took pains to select the best design out of the 32 presented by Wando High School students on Tuesday. David Quick/Staff

The caveat?

Another part of the real-life process involved in the project will be satisfying regulations.

Johnston says the plans will be converted to blueprints this winter and submitted to the county for approval. She doesn’t anticipate any delays, even though Charleston County and South Carolina have yet to set up special codes for tiny houses.

Among the judges for the selection for the tiny house was Perri Reed of Charleston County Building Inspection Services, who declined to make any comments on the record about the possible approval of the tiny house plans.

Through Communications Coordinator Kelsey Barlow Roland, the county’s inspection services confirmed that the proposed 2018 building codes include proposed appendices for tiny houses.

“At this time, it is unknown whether Appendix Q will be adopted. ... The proposed structure will go through the normal permitting and inspection processes. It must meet all site specific conditions and design requirements, including wind and seismic loads, as a single-family residence.

“If these conditions are met, there should not be any impediments to obtaining a building permit. The structure referenced will be built off site and moved to a permanent location and placed on a permanent foundation.

“Charleston County has agreed to work with the Charleston Homebuilders Association to complete this project as an educational tool for Charleston County students.”

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One of the final plans the judges considered before making their decision was this one by Wando High School student Carrie Nelson. David Quick/Staff

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.