Abilene High School building trades students are in the process of constructing a new house.

Nothing unusual about that, but what is different is this house will not be completed in May. Instead, it will remain on its foundation an additional year, allowing extra time for students to learn more building skills and, in the process, add more value to the final product.

Last May, the house built by the 2017-18 construction classes only had one bidder when it sold at auction and that bid was $23,000 less than expenses.

Because of the discrepancy, the Board of Education rejected the bid and directed then-Superintendent Denise Guy to look for another buyer who would pay more. However, the lone bidder upped the bid $10,000, which the board did accept.

But that was not the first time. The same situation has occurred over and over in recent years.

Although the reasons behind the lack of interest and low bids are varied, one thing was certain: Something needed to change. At the time, Guy said that likely would involve a curriculum change.

That curriculum change now means the house will be built over the course of two school years.

Decision-makers felt the program — which has been taught for decades at AHS — was valuable. Statistics show that approximately 60 percent of students who have taken the class use the skills learned on some task or another, even if it’s just basic home repair.

“We love the value of it in terms of what we’re teaching kids through it, so we didn’t want to get rid of it,” AHS Principal Ben Smith told the Board of Education in October.

“We needed to alter what it looked like so we’re producing the best quality product and minimizing losses that were occurring between the cost of the house and the sale of the house,” Smith said. “We are losing a fair amount of money every year between what we’re paying and what the auction brings in.”

Two-year program

Taking two years to build the house has several advantages, Smith said.

“First, we’re not saturating a market with student-produced homes; and second, when we do hit the market with a student-produced home we’ve got extra learning time involved,” he said. “We can make the house even better by adding certain modules to it.”

Class instructor Tray Green, who previously worked in the construction industry, is completely supportive, Smith said, explaining Green indicated at least nine modules could be added that would enhance student learning.

For one, students would learn more about wiring. The one-year program doesn’t allow sufficient time for that to be taught so electricians are hired.

With the expanded program, Green will teach the students “rough electrical,” Smith said, “which means the wiring gets in and then when it comes time to connect the wiring to the boxes — which we also would put in — we’d have a professional come in and inspect the work they’re doing and maybe finish that part up.”

Students will also learn more about plumbing, installing trim, hanging cabinets and building stairs.

“Mr. Green would like to do a unit on steel framing in addition to wood stud framing,” Smith said. “If you remember watching our auditorium get built, it has a vast amount of steel stud framing in there. So it’s a common construction device.”

The extra time also allows students more involvement in the design features, Smith said.

“We’ve talked about doing false dormers to add porch and curb appeal so it’s not just a rectangular home with siding and a roof on it,” he explained.

Board President Jeff Bathurst observed that most students probably take the course their junior and senior years.

Smith agreed, explaining this year’s seniors will help get this house halfway done. However, most of those students did have the chance to see the entire process, start to finish, when they worked on last year’s house when they were juniors.

Board Member Jennifer Waite asked if costs will be the same or possibly less since more of the work will be done by students and less by outside contractors.

“Ideally the cost will be a little less, but we could spend a little more on extra features as well and hopefully recoup that later on,” Smith replied. “But we are real conscious about the price of that because we can’t guarantee what it will bring at auction.”

He did note many contractors have been good about turning their work into “teaching moments for the kids.”

“Mr. Green’s construction background is such that he could teach the kids all this if the time was there,” Smith said. “By not hiring those things out we could spend that money differently.”

Pre-sale attempt?

Board Member Gregg Noel asked if any thought had been given to try to pre-sell the home before taking it to auction. Having two years to work on it might provide a better idea of total material costs, he explained.

The district took bids in the fall of 2017 with the idea of pre-selling the house to be finished in May 2018, with the thought that potential buyers might be more interested if they had some input on construction matters. However, no bids were received.

“Despite the fact we didn’t have any takers when we did the early auction last time, I think it’s worth trying again,” Smith said, commenting that opportunity for additional control is almost like having a spec house. “I think that adds a lot of value to a potential buyer as long as the price is agreeable.”

Contact Kathy Hageman at reporter@abilene-rc.com.

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