Tiny house building training has Fresno students dreaming big about their future

Ashleigh Panoo/EdSource

Oscar Martinez, left, and Carlos Ochoa work on the frame for one of 24 tiny houses Fresno City College students will build with a city grant.

At Fresno City College’s Career and Technology Center, tucked away in an industrial neighborhood near the city’s southern border, a dozen students crowded around the wooden frame of a short exterior wall.

Construction students were mounting the structures on a trailer, starting what will be the first of 24 tiny houses that will go to those in need. And beyond the charitable purpose, this important real-life construction project teaches job skills and aims to help students enter the workforce with valuable experience.

When the pandemic began closing campuses in 2020, construction classes remained outdoors in person. But Fresno City College lost its usual community project – building a house for a family with Habitat for Humanity.

Now, through a partnership with the City of Fresno, the community college is participating in a four-year project to build tiny homes for low-income or homeless people across the city. The houses will be built on campus by students from two construction courses, Foundations and Framing, and Interiors and Exteriors.

The first houses will be completed in May 2023, according to Ricco Guajardo, program manager and instructor. He hopes to be on track to complete about six a year by 2026 with the city’s $850,000 grant, approved in September.

Alexis Ayala, one of the students working on the framing, wasn’t sure if he wanted to go to college right after high school. The 2021 Fresno Unified graduate thought he would take some time off to earn money, “and then go to school if I really wanted to.”

That was until a flyer arrived at his home promoting the building program. His mother, he recalls, told him, “You know, they have a lot of programs. Check out what interests you.'”

Now, four months into the program, Ayala plans to complete her certificate next fall and then move on to earning her degree in architecture.

“I plan to start a business, probably with some family members, and teach them the ropes,” he said.

Ashleigh Panoo/EdSource

Alexis Ayala, left, reviews tiny house construction plans with instructor Rodney Attkisson at Fresno City College’s Career and Technology Center.

Ayala is already proud of her work, knowing that the tiny houses are for a good cause.

“It will be one of the first projects I do,” he said. “I’m doing my best and for the most part it’s fun to think this is going to go to someone in need.”

During the pandemic, construction instructors were already learning how to build tiny homes, but selling the trendy homes to recoup the cost of materials is difficult, according to college president Robert Pimentel. Instead, each house was dismantled after it was completed.

“We literally had to take them all apart and then hopefully salvage a lot of the materials and reuse them,” he said.

So it’s exciting, the instructors said, to be able to build houses that people will actually live in.

Tiny House Building includes everything students need to know to build larger structures, such as framing, reading blueprints, installing doors and windows, plumbing, and more.

Pimentel said that once students pass both courses, “they’re pretty good at getting out there and working in construction.” Homebuilders can hire a lot of them “because they will have the experience to do it,” he said.

Instructor Rodney Attkisson said students typically choose a major trade to get into, such as framing, cabinetry and trim, or foundations.

“So not only are they trained (here),” he said, “but they also have a good overview of what they might want to do.”

Student Oscar Martinez had no previous construction experience and, like Ayala, entered the program right out of high school. Now he found “tying the walls together” the most interesting. The process of connecting the walls together “makes everything fit together”, he said. “Like a puzzle.”

When he found out he would be helping build a little house, “I thought it was a good gesture, something nice to give back to the community,” he said.

Guarjardo said a majority of his students arrive without any prior knowledge of construction.

“Some people have never used a hammer before,” he said. “(They) don’t even know how to use power tools (and we) get them to where they’re comfortable using all of this and knowing how to use it.”

Ashleigh Panoo/EdSource

Instructor and program manager Ricco Guajardo, dressed in orange, works with students to check the frame of a small house.

The small home grant comes from money from the US City of Fresno Bailout Act, federal funding approved by Congress and President Joe Biden to help with economic recovery during the pandemic. Earlier this year, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer unveiled a housing strategy that included prioritizing small homes and secondary suites to address a local and statewide housing shortage.

The college uses design plans provided by California Tiny House, a Fresno-based tiny home builder, according to Becky Barabé, dean of education for the applied technology division at Fresno City College. The 8-by-20-foot one-bedroom homes will be built on wheels and will include a bathroom and a mini-kitchen, including a refrigerator, she said.

The city is looking for community organizations to place the tiny houses and decide who will live in them, according to Sontaya Rose, the city’s communications director.

Despite the desperate need for student accommodation, the houses are not specifically designated for students, Barabé said, although she could not rule out the possibility of a student applying to live there.

Ashleigh Panoo/EdSource

The 8-by-20-foot framework of the first small house was erected by students.

Many middle schools, and even high schools, have turned to designing and building tiny homes. But only a few have the funds to turn these homes into real homes for the people who need them most.

The Oakland City Council gave Laney College $80,000 in 2016 to build two tiny prototype houses where the students now live. The college won awards for its design in the Sacramento Municipal District’s Tiny House Competition.

In 2021, University of San Francisco students and their professor completed a small hometown in Oakland for foster children aging out of the system.

At College of the Desert in the Coachella Valley, dual-enrollment high schoolers helped build a tiny house this year, according to the college.

Other cities have turned to tiny villages of origin to house homeless people, but not without criticism.

Los Angeles is the site of several such parks, and mayoral candidates are proposing even more to help the more than 40,000 homeless people in the city. Cities in the Bay Area are also home to several.

The villages have been criticized for their overzealous rules and for failing to address the underlying reasons many people end up homeless: a shortage of permanent housing and untreated mental illness. Landlords have fought to keep villages out of their neighborhoods, citing concerns about crime. This year, a unified school in Oakland sent a letter asking for more safety in a village near its campus after leaders raised concerns for student safety.

But the access to case managers that villages provide is crucial, advocates say, and having private bathrooms, as Fresno homes will, can increase the chances that people will stay longer and get up.

Although it is still unclear how the houses could be used and where, “we are excited to be part of the solution,” Barabé said.

On the campus of the university’s Career and Technology Center, Carlos Ochoa hopped on the trailer where his class’s tiny house was being built. The 42-year-old hopes to get a certificate and find a job in a union.

Ochoa held many jobs, his last in a slaughterhouse. He hopes his future work in construction will be “different. Easier than the previous one I had,” he said. “Less stress.”

The father-of-five may not have professional construction experience, but he has taught himself how to take care of things around the house over the years, he said.

“Now when I come to this class, all these kids, they come up to me and ask me questions,” he said, “and I help them.”

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