Hammer time: Cass students build tiny cabins

jlondberg@demo-mo.comJanuary 11, 2017 

A Construction Technology program at the Cass Career Center gives students hands-on training in the skills needed to build a tiny cabin, and the school isn’t paying a dime for it.

“It’s the first time I don’t have any costs,” said Mark Hollingshead, the program instructor.

Hollingshead spearheaded the program’s curriculum: in two years, students will build a tiny cabin of about 375 square feet from the shop’s cement floor. The program familiarizes students with a wide range of skills: from electrical work to carpentry, plumbing, interior finishes, masonry and cement finishings.

Hollingshead used to sell the cabins himself, to recoup the cost of materials, but now a supplier brings materials as needed, and then put the finished cabins on the market themselves.

“I don’t have to spend the money and worry if we can get anything out of it,” Hollingshead said.

The program is garnering interest from other career and technical education schools across the state and as far away as California, Hollingshead said.

Jeanette Flanner, the director of the Cass Career Center, said Hollingshead’s program has become “a model for the state.”

It’s also a bridge to decent jobs in industries where workers are in high demand.

Patrick Flanner, a general contractor with Flanner Construction Services and Jeanette Flanner’s spouse, said the shortage of workers in the trades — such as plumbers, electricians and framers — has become a hurdle in the industry.

Electrician outfits once sent three or four workers to a job site, but now that number is down to one or two, Patrick Flanner said.

“You rarely see a big framing crew anymore,” he added. “Most of the younger generation are looking for more college-oriented degrees and kind of skipping over those industrial trades that really pay well.”

Despite the shortage in the workforce, Hollingshead said demand for his program is growing. This school year was the first in eight years in which a wait list was necessary. Currently, 30 students from nine schools are enrolled in the course.

At the two-year Construction Technology program, students are eligible to receive certification with the Associated Builders and Contractors and advanced placement credit with the Association of General Contractors. The program also offers some dual-credit hours for students who are college-bound.

Hollingshead added he surveys his former students after they graduate. In the last four years, 100 percent of his former students have either gone into the military, gone on to college or entered the construction industry.

Derrold Costigan, a senior from Adrian High School, is one of Hollingshead’s current students.

Derrold plans to operate heavy equipment after high school.

“I thought about automotive, but then I saw this class,” Derrold said.

During a class field trip a few months ago, he operated a mini excavator and ground crane, he said, cementing his affinity for operating the heavy machinery.

Last week, Derrold was measuring, sawing, and installing cedar lap siding on his group’s tiny cabin in the shop. Over the hum of table saws and power drills, he said he’d recommend the class to students who enjoy working with their hands and being creative.

After finishing the siding, the class will move to electrical work. Students will practice installing wiring and equipment.

Zane Brown, a senior from Lone Jack, doesn’t plan to go into a construction-related field, but he said the skills he’s acquiring in Construction Technology will be useful throughout his life.

The tiny cabins they’ll finish over the next few months could one day make for someone’s home or “vacation cabin,” as Hollingshead calls them.

About a year ago, Pat Spangler of Butler purchased a dual cabin made by students in the program. They split the cabin down the middle, with each group working on one half of the eventual 750-square-foot cabin.

“I was surprised at the quality for students,” Spangler, who now lives in the cabin, said.

Because the cabin was built by students, Spangler did not pay for labor but materials to build the cabin.

The cost? $18,000.

“When I walked inside, I was amazed by how big it is on the inside,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, sold, I can live in this.’”

Before the recession, students in the program were out on site, learning the trades by helping to build $200,000 homes.

Then Hollingshead came up with the idea of tiny cabins.

“We’ve moved inside, don’t have any missed days due to inclement weather,” Hollingshead said. The liability was also curtailed when students moved into the shop from working out on job sites.

“All the way around, it benefited the program,” Hollingshead said.

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