If you’ve ever wondered what 27 high school girls could do with access to power tools, the answer is something vastly bigger than a bird feeder.
The teenagers, all students in a Technology for Social Welfare class at Carondelet High School in Concord, learned to build houses – and then to build one themselves. Not just any house. A tiny house designed and built for migrant agricultural workers who often struggle to find adequate accommodation.
The house will be built on a trailer in the school parking lot. When it is completed sometime next year, it will be handed over to Hijas del Campo, a Contra Costa County’s grassroots organization that aims to help migrants and seasonal workers improve their quality of life and their sense of security during the pandemic and beyond. The owners of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood donated land to the house to rest on.
The class, taught by Chris Walsh, the school’s Center for Innovation Director, and math teacher Kristina Levesque, is the first industrial arts hands-on class ever taught in the Catholic High School for girls. So, says Walsh, he wanted to start big – and big meant start small, with the small house.
âI wanted a showcase project that the school could be really proud of,â says Walsh, âand that the students could take on and take with them. That’s it, but it’s not the end, it’s a beginning. I would like to build more houses, maybe build robotic arms. “
The project is far more complex than teaching teenagers how to use table saws and drills. The students first had to learn the basics of building a house and figuring out exactly what the residents of the tiny home need and what is most useful.
They interviewed people who work with farm workers with a migrant background and learned that living spaces are often shared by unrelated people. That meant that even a tiny house needs privacy. Working on the farm can be dirty, so the house needed good plumbing and a washing machine.
There were building codes to learn, as well as technical and architectural principles. And the girls wanted to make sure that the house was built sustainably. They decided to start with a steel frame that would be more sturdy and environmentally friendly. They measured and cut materials and screwed them together before erecting them on the mobile foundation.
Most teenagers had a basic understanding of power tools after building small projects at home, but the technical and design aspects were new to them. Walsh says because girls are often not exposed to this type of class, he made them exclusive. Carondelet and its neighboring school, the All-Boys De La Salle, often allow each other’s students to attend certain classes, but this one is reserved for Carondelet students and lets the girls run the show.
Lauren Roach, 17, a senior from Clayton, says her interest in the course started when she had a free hour to complete, and Engineering for Social Good sounded interesting.
âIt was really out of my comfort zone,â says Lauren, âand that’s why I signed up. Carondelet is always ready to get us to do different things, to educate us holistically, and I’ve learned a lot about how things work and how a house is built. I have to design one of the walls. “
Emmy Denton, a 17-year-old senior from Pleasant Hill, says she wasn’t sure what the class was about, but the words “engineering” and “building” caught her eye.
âI like to work with my hands,â says Denton, although her career aspiration is more spiritual than physical – she wants to become a forensic psychologist.
Chloe De Smedt, a 17-year-old senior from San Ramon, had previously worked with Walsh and said the class sounded fun. She was particularly drawn to the idea of ââusing sustainable materials.
âWe’re going to be building a lot more practical,â says Chloe. “There’s a lot to do and I’ve learned a lot.”
The need for housing for agricultural workers with a migrant background is great, says Dorina Moraida, co-founder and vice-president of Hijas Del Campo. Workers rent rooms where they can find them, but many live in their cars and in tents. This will be the group’s first tiny home, says Moraida.
“We hope this is a home that two workers can stay in during the season or perhaps serve as a starting point to settle in Brentwood,” she said. “We are very happy about the home and are very grateful.”
Both Walsh and Levesque had to study alongside the students as their experiences were mostly home improvement projects. Some parents with building experience have stepped in as mentors, but it was important, Walsh says, that the girls make most of the decisions and do most of the work.
“We’re trying not to be the wise one on stage,” says Levesque. “It’s really good to see how they figure it out and do it.”
Walsh says that some of the students might have careers in engineering or architecture, but that is not the goal of the class.
âWe want to start a spark,â says Walsh. “What you do with it is up to you.”