At Radford High School: A lot goes into a tiny house

Liz Kirchner

The hands of Radford High School Building Trades teacher and student examine the mitered cuts of a birdhouse roof.

The garage doors are rolled up on a warm fall morning at the Radford High School Building Trades shop. Big sinks, wooden tables, bins of chisels and clamps, fill the workshop.

It smells like cedar, pine and Minwax and it’s crammed not just with wood and scroll saws, it’s full of students. In tie-dye T-shirts and Carhartt hats, these Radford High School kids are part of a national trend.

Technical skills classes like woodworking, computer-aided design and metal shop – classes that happen outside the traditional setting in big airy spaces like this one, were long undervalued.

But as prices for capable carpenters, electricians and plumbers have skyrocketed, their capabilities is regaining respect.

Culturally, the Maker’s movements and Raspberry Pi have added a hip vibe to self-reliance and, with practical skills at a critical low in the market, many Virginia high schools are beginning to develop apprenticeship and vocational programs that revive and revalue practical know-how.

As the tardy bell clangs, Building Trades instructor Skip Lawton’s maroon polo is coated with a light dusting of wood shavings and he’s a busy man. While explaining miter saw angles to a girl in safety glasses and a nose stud, he’s also helping someone find the chuck to the drill press.

Photos by Liz Kirchner
Radford High School Building Trades classes revive nation’s declining technical and trades skills. RHS teacher Skip Lawton works with students building trade students.

He ushers kids (one in a T-shirt that says, “Love Grow Serve”) carrying a computer-driven router saw from the Machine Technology class next-door all while describing the Tiny House Project.

A tiny house is the cornerstone of the “simple living“ movement – an architectural and social movement that encourages living simply in small space.

The notion of building better, not bigger, encourages efficient and skillful use of design and craftsmanship that can make a tiny space beautiful and even spacious.

And it’s true, they are tiny. Tiny houses slot kitchens, bed, bath and living rooms sometime a balcony into less than 500 square feet – the average American house is more than 2000.

Launching this year, RHS’s three-year Tiny House Project will use multiple types of craftsmanship from woodworking and joinery to metal fabrication, computer-aided design and machining, involving the already-interconnected building trades, and machine technology classes.

The tiny house planning group chose a Tumbleweed Tiny House Company design as inspiration for their design. Computer-aided Design, or CAD, student Jake Luckett will use highly sought-after CAD skills to develop blueprints for the house.

Softer, but just as critical, skills in fund raising are being honed as the Project is laying the foundation: raising awareness and funds, and enthusiasm is building: Wal-Mart has pledged $3000 over three years, Local building supply companies and proud parents are pitching it and it’s hoped the wider community will help.

But already looming expense has retooled the project.

“We wanted to do 10 x 40 square feet, but there were several issues – it bumped the cost up $100,000 – the trailer cost $8000. Even the permitting needed to pull something that size on the road was expensive,” Lawton said.

To raise funds, the students are building tool benches, repairing historic architectural details from local houses and carving wooden trophies using traditional wood carving skills as well as programming precise computer-guided equipment.

CJ Garvin, a junior, is working on replicating and renewing the aging mortise and tenon of a once-graceful attic window from his family’s Radford home.

When asked why he took this class, he said, “It’s a family tradition working with wood.” He added, “I look forward to this class everyday.”

Jacob Alley, a junior, has built a handsome workbench with multiple shelves and electrical power jacks.

These students have long-term plans. Tristan Poole, a junior, says he plans to become a contractor, “I plan to get my associates and start my own company.”

Danielle Lee, in her senior year, with seven classes a semester, hadn’t had time for a building arts class, until this year. With lots of liberal arts classes behind her, she’s responsible for public relations and outreach. Although she will have graduated long before the project is finished, she says the beginning stages are the most important. I’m glad to be a part at the beginning.”

Lawton said, “These skill sets will follow these young people with them all their lives, and all over the world, whether they choose to go into the trades or not. “

The Radford High School Tiny House Project has its own Facebook page “RHS Tiny House Project. “

To make a donation to the project, contact Lawton at 731-3649.

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