Home School: Building trades students get hands-on experience in home construction
While their classmates study at Pekin Community High School, 25 teenagers gather in an unoccupied house. Music plays from the radio. A buzz of activity fills the rooms.
No, these students aren't skipping school.
Actually, they're building a home in the Hickory Hills subdivision.
Every year since 1992, Pekin students have constructed an upscale home as part of the high school's building trades class. Students recognize that home construction is serious business and embrace the chance for hands-on experience.
"When you're putting things together, you realize somebody's going to be spending a large amount of money on this," said senior Jim Moore, in his second year of the class. "This isn't a clubhouse."
Far from it.
As students wrap up construction at 221 Ironwood Drive under the supervision of teacher Mark Sanders, Keith and Wanda Richardson live three doors down. They are enjoying a similar home, nearly 2,000 square feet, built by the previous year's class.
When a job transfer sent the Richardsons from Ames, Iowa, to Pekin last June, they began looking for a home to fit their needs. In particular, they wanted a large kitchen to accommodate their hobby of baking made-from-scratch items such as bread and cinnamon rolls.
The Ironwood home offered an open main floor, concrete countertops and a spacious kitchen, but it came with a twist.
"I understand 16- and 17-year-olds were working on it, but I saw the kind of work they were doing and I was confident in Mark," Keith Richardson said. "We feel like we got great value in this house."
Rather than using a real estate agent to find a home, the Richardsons went through the high school's annual sealed bid process for the home. They bid the minimum $250,000 required and moved in after finding out they had submitted the lone bid.
Although the construction is meant to be for educational purposes rather than as a fundraiser, District 303 Superintendent Paula Davis said the school has never lost money on a home.
In the unique program, the school essentially builds a spec home each year. If it fails to sell via sealed bid, an agent can be hired by the school.
Davis and the school board are involved in approving the purchase of a lot – next year's is adjacent to the home under construction now – and setting a budget for materials. Sanders, who has taught the classes for six years, is charged with keeping costs under budget and with supervising the work.
Experts in real estate and construction provide input on locations and price ranges for homes that are selling well.
"The board president (Joe Alesandrini) has been involved in appraising homes before," Davis said. "We draw on the expertise of others and have been very fortunate to have the support of the labor unions. When you have contractors and people in the community willing to give you input, and they want it to be a success, you're able to marshal the resources of a community.
"Sure, there's always a calculated (financial) risk. But when you have the type of support that we've had, it makes that risk diminish a little bit."
Every year, Sanders has the foundation poured during the summer. When school starts, his morning and afternoon classes, each with about 25 students, have about eight months to complete the home.
They aren't alone. Several other Pekin high school classes play a role.
Drafting students design the home. Interior and exterior design students use a budget to purchase items such as bricks, shingles, carpets and flooring. Landscaping students work on the yard. Automotive students keep Sanders' school-owned van in working order. Electronics students repair power tools. Graphic arts students advertise the home.
At least 200 students are expected to have a hand in each year's house. The newest home includes a three-stall garage and large fireplace.
Although many students have taken vocational classes, the initial week or so is spent on safety training with power tools before the actual building process begins.
After that, safety and teamwork are up to the students.
"We build a scaffold in here and put about 10 or 15 guys on the ground to walk (trusses) up," Sanders said. "We have walkways and planks in mid-air and we carry the trusses up there.
"That's really cool because it teaches everybody how to work together. If one guy pushes too hard on one end, this guy gets shoved off the back of the house. You don't always have to like the guy you work with. You have to learn to like the guy you work with because you don't always get to pick who you work with."
Subcontractors are hired to do work such as plumbing and heating. Union laborers supervise tasks such as wiring, plastering or bricklaying.
The Local 18 plasterers' union also provides thousands of dollars' worth of complicated work in several rooms. Journeymen spend about three weeks working with apprentices.
Work done by apprentices and high school students lowers labor costs. On the other hand, Sanders faces the disadvantage of less than four hours to work each day. Tools suffer more wear and tear with inexperienced operators, and some jobs must be repeated. That leads to extra costs in materials.
"There's time between classes when I check everything," Sanders said. "I'll tear it apart and have them do it over if it isn't right.
"Sure, they make mistakes and we have to start over. That's why you don't make a lot of money on it. But I've always been told it's about education and not profit."
Sanders estimates he has sent at least 60 students into the construction field.
"We're not in any competition with these builders," he said. "I am a supplier of future employees to them. They support me heavily."
One future employee is senior Mike Reed, in his second year in the class. Reed worked for Peoria Siding and Window last summer and plans to earn a construction degree in college before continuing in the field.
"Most kids don't even know how to put a nail in without breaking their thumb," Reed said. "You do this for a couple years and you've got what you need to do it yourself at home. You can save a lot of money just on basic things you learn in this class."
Which is why Sanders believes his class benefits both college-bound students and those headed directly into the trades.
"A lot of them are (going into the trades) – but all of them are going to live in a home," Sanders said. "The emphasis isn't just on how to build homes. To all of them, I'm teaching work ethic and how to keep a job. No matter what you do, you've got to have a work ethic. Nobody can come to this work site and stand around."
Ryan Ori can be reached at (309) 686-3264 or email@example.com.