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Wando High School students build 'tiny house' for educational farm

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Hannah Kenis looked nervously at the small structure as it was lifted onto the back of a truck.

The 16-year-old and about two dozen other hard hat-clad Wando High School students had just spent the past two weeks building the tiny house, braving high temperatures that stretched into the triple digits. Now, it was being taken to its final destination on a farm in historic Phillips Community off S.C. Highway 41.

Kenis, a rising junior, designed much of the structure in her civil engineering and architecture class and won a competition organized by the Charleston Home Builders Association. Along with helping her to see her plan come to fruition outside of a computer, CHBA awarded the rising junior a $6,000 college scholarship. On the last day of the construction process, the group gave Wando student Caroline Shiflet an additional $500 scholarship for her help with interior design.

“I was walking in and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is a house I designed. This is a real thing,’” Kenis said. “It’s kind of surreal.”

The tiny house is about 225 square feet and features living and kitchen areas in addition to a bathroom.

The house was designed and built in a three-phase process, beginning with proposals drafted by students in Katie Johnston’s class at Wando High School and ending with the two-week camp on the school’s campus. The class was open to students in the 10th through 12th grade.

“It really fit seamlessly into my curriculum,” Johnston said.

Students in Johnston's class have to learn how to craft floor plans, do site design, wood frame a building and design building foundations.

The tiny house will be used as a living space for interns and hopefully, veterans, who want to learn a farming trade. Katie Donohoe, a former Wando horticulture teacher, is using the farm to carry out the educational goal of the business she directs, Growing Minds.

Soon after Donohoe bought the farmland in Phillips, developers started asking to purchase it from her. The land was most recently used for grape and pecan farming and Donohoe said she’s glad she can keep the area agricultural.

"It's all kind of come full circle," Donohoe said, noting that the greenhouse beside the construction site on the Wando campus was built under her direction as well.

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Almost all of the building material, from the foundation to the roofs, was donated by vendors who work with CHBA’s partners. The students did most of the building, with some help from professional builders.

The team is still looking for drywall, insulation and electrical material donations.

“They were all burnt out at the end of the day Monday because it was all layout work,” said Shawn Doogan, vice president of Southeastern Family Homes, at the end of the first week.

This is the second year of the tiny house initiative. Last year, Doogan proposed a similar project with scholarship awards for students at the Charleston County School of the Arts.

Doogan said one of his intentions, which he shared with CHBA, was to spark interest in hand trades among younger people. 

The last day of camp, two cranes and a truck came to haul the house to the nearby farm. Donors, campers and their parents sheltered themselves from the glaring sun in the engineering building, accompanied by a CHBA mascot, Jimbo, a black Lab puppy.

One of the students secured the door to the structure with a piece of twine before the crane lifted it.

What started off as a bare wood structure became a white-painted, windowed house by the end of the two weeks. The house is about 25 feet wide and will stand at a height of about 11 feet once it is secured on its foundations.

Doogan helped the crew fasten yellow belts around the structure to lift it onto the trailer and keep it secured. As the house began to rise above the ground, the campers and their parents watched and videotaped the process nervously. 

CK Contracting owner Chris Klick had been stopping by on a regular basis to lend his expertise to the novice builders. He said he was impressed with the students’ work and their ability to handle the hot weather.

“The students blew me away,” Doogan said.

Reach Jesse Naranjo at 843-937-5764. Follow him on Twitter @jesselnaranjo.

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