In the construction industry’s battle against severe labor shortages, Matt Towle and Mike Schofield are on the front lines.
As technical school instructors in Laconia, New Hampshire, Towle and Schofield want to train the next generation of construction pros. Their challenge is particularly acute in a state where the median age of construction workers, 45, is the highest in the United States.
So Towle and Schofield were eager when their local home builders association chapter came to their school with an opportunity: build an entire tiny home with funding from the New Hampshire Lottery.
“When we do construction projects in our school, we have an inherent challenge of having enough time and enough funding to do a house,” says Towle, the building construction teacher at J. Oliva Huot Technical Center. “It really was an ideal situation to do a project with students that’s never been done and get the whole scope of a home building project, something somebody’s going to use.”
Winning the Lottery
The 2017 tiny home project was spearheaded by a New Hampshire Home Builders Association (NHHBA) workforce initiative. “We were acknowledging there’s a shortage of labor across the country,” says Todd Mezzanotte, NHHBA associate national director. “We see people retiring and not enough connection or engagement with kids coming out of the trade schools. We were scratching our heads saying, ‘What can we do?'”
The builders collaborated with the lottery, which sends all of its profits to state education funding, to create Tiny House New Hampshire. The initiative provided funding to four technical high schools around the state to design and build so-called tiny homes. The homes would be displayed and judged at the New Hampshire State Home Show, with the winning home serving as the second-chance drawing prize for a new “Tiny House, Big Money” scratch ticket game.
Several industry partners jumped in to donate supplies and materials, including Dead River Company, a local propane supplier. Since the homes would be transported by trailer to the home show and then to their eventual owner, including propane cylinders with the homes would offer a plug-and-play fuel source and make the homes fully portable, says Scott Johnston, Dead River Company sales manager.
“It’s a consistent heat source, very portable, and very easy to fill up,” he says. “Providing the heat, the cooking, and the hot water, it’s just one less thing for them to be worrying about.”
“It was a good opportunity for the kids to do some gas piping and have those skills and use those skills on a project.”
Schofield, the plumbing and heating teacher at Huot, was enthusiastic about incorporating propane on the project. “We’re in a unique area where we have a mix of propane and natural gas depending on whether you’re in the city or outside the city,” he says. “So it was a good opportunity for the kids to do some gas piping and have those skills and use those skills on a project.”
Heating in Small Spaces
Dead River Company enlisted distributor F.W. Webb to donate heating and plumbing supplies. Working together with the technical school instructors and students, the team decided an 11,000-Btu propane direct vent space heater and a tankless water heater from Rinnai were the best choice for a home where space was at a premium. Rinnai stepped up to donate the equipment for all of the homes.
“We had a nice central location on a wheel well underneath the wall-hung TV that centralized that little heater, and we went with that,” Schofield says. Likewise, the tankless water heater was compact enough to fit inside a custom cabinet in the kitchen, where it can be direct vented out of the house. “We had 192 square feet of finished space, and no one wants to walk into a fancy house and look at a water heater,” he says. “Tankless water heaters are efficient, they’re easy to install, they’re bullet-proof. So they were a good choice.”
“Tankless water heaters are efficient, they’re easy to install, they’re bullet-proof.”
Choosing propane for these critical systems, as well as for the kitchen range, makes the home more versatile for potential off-grid applications, says Richard Fox, LP/Gas division sales manager for F.W. Webb. Huot’s home can be connected to a campsite power source or run off of a propane generator. “The initial start-up of [an electric] mini-split is pretty substantial, so I don’t think that’s realistic for a generator,” Fox says. “A [propane] space heater absolutely is.”
The home was designed in the style of a lakefront cottage, so the students decided the home should easily accommodate outdoor living amenities. “We actually came up with the thought to put an outdoor gas grill connection off the propane,” Schofield says. “A nice little touch.”
Working on a tiny house provided a variety of rich instructional opportunities that a traditional project such as a shed wouldn’t have offered. The construction class was able to install windows, work with an insulation installer, and go through the energy audit process with a local community college professor. And the construction students had a unique opportunity to collaborate with the plumbing students, modifying the framing to accommodate plumbing or electrical needs.
All of these skills are increasingly in demand, not just in the construction trade, but also in the plumbing and propane industries. “I know a lot of guys in the building materials industry and contractors as well, they’re hurting for skilled labor,” says Dead River Company’s Johnston. “Same with us. We’re hurting to find new technicians. So this is a great way for us to stay connected and network and, who knows, we might be able to find a placement for a kid or influence somebody or help some of the builders out. It’s just been a really good feeling being a part of it.”
Huot’s students may have left the project with the best feeling after their home was chosen as the winner at the New Hampshire State Home Show. “Yeah, we crushed it,” Schofield says. “They’re proud of what they did. They’ll be telling their grandkids about this.”
“I can’t share with you enough how huge this was for a student that’s 17 years old,” Towle adds. “It’s unmatched to anything I can think of.”