If you’ve ever wondered what 27 high school girls with access to power tools might create, the answer is something considerably bigger than a birdhouse.
The teenagers, all students in an Engineering for Social Good class at Concord’s Carondelet High School have been learning to build houses — and then building one themselves. Not just any house. A tiny house, designed and constructed for migrant farmworkers, who often struggle to find adequate shelter.
The home is being constructed atop a trailer in the school’s parking lot. When it’s completed sometime next year, it will be given to Hijas del Campo, a Contra Costa County grassroots organization that aims to help migrant and seasonal farmworkers improve their quality of life and sense of safety during the pandemic and beyond. The owners of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood have donated a site for the home to rest.
The class, which is taught by Chris Walsh, director of the school’s Center for Innovation, and math teacher Kristina Levesque, is the first hands-on industrial arts class ever taught at the all-girls Catholic high school. So, Walsh says, he wanted to start big — and big meant starting tiny, with the small house.
“I wanted a flagship project that the school could really be proud of,” Walsh says, “and that the students could take over and run with. This is it, but it’s not the end, it’s a beginning. I’d like to do even more houses, maybe build robotic arms.”
The project is far more complex than teaching teenagers how to use table saws and drills. Students first had to learn the basics of home construction, as well as figure out exactly what the occupants of the tiny home would need and what would be of most use.
They interviewed people who work with migrant farmworkers and learned that living spaces are often shared by people who are not related. That meant that even a tiny home needs areas of privacy. Farm work can be dirty, so that meant the home had to have good plumbing and a washing machine.
There were building codes to learn, as well as engineering and architectural principles. And the girls wanted to make sure the home is built with sustainability in mind. They decided to start with a framework of steel, which would be more sturdy and ecologically friendly. They measured and cut materials, and bolted them together before erecting them on the mobile foundation.
Most of the teens had a basic understanding of power tools, having built small projects at home, but the engineering and design aspects were new to them. Walsh says because girls often aren’t exposed to this sort of class, he made it exclusive. Carondelet and its brother school next door, the all-boys De La Salle, often allow each others’ students to attend certain classes, but this one is reserved for Carondelet students, letting the girls run the show.
Lauren Roach, 17, a senior from Clayton, says her interest in the class started when she needed to fill a free period, and Engineering for Social Good sounded interesting.
“This was really outside my comfort zone,” Lauren says, “and that’s why I signed up. Carondelet is always willing to get us to do different things, to give us a holistic education, and I’ve learned a lot about how things work and how a home is built. I got to design one of the walls.”
Emmy Denton, a 17-year-old senior from Pleasant Hill, says she wasn’t sure what the class would be about, but the words “engineering” and “building” caught her attention.
“I like working with my hands,” Denton says, even though her chosen career is more mental than physical — she wants to become a forensic psychologist.
Chloe De Smedt, a 17-year-old senior from San Ramon, had worked with Walsh before and said this class sounded fun. She was particularly drawn to the idea of using sustainable materials.
“We’re getting to do a lot of hands-on building,” Chloe says. “There’s a lot to do and I’ve learned a lot.”
The need for migrant farmworker housing is great, says Dorina Moraida, co-founder and vice president of Hijas Del Campo. Workers rent rooms where they can find them, but many are living in their cars and in tents. This will be the first tiny home for the group, Moraida says.
“We hope this will be a home that two workers can stay at during the season, or maybe serve as a launching post to get them established in Brentwood,” she said. “We’re very excited about the home and very grateful.”
Both Walsh and Levesque have had to learn right along with the students, as their experience was mostly home DIY projects. A few parents with construction experience have stepped in to act as mentors, but it’s been important, Walsh says, that the girls make the bulk of the decisions and do most of the work.
“We are trying not to be the sage on the stage,” Levesque says. “It’s really good to see them figuring it out and accomplishing it.”
Walsh says while some of the students might go on to have careers in engineering or architecture, that’s not the goal of the class.
“We want to light a spark,” Walsh says. “What they do with it is up to them.”