Cold winter? Global pandemic? Nothing could stop these students from building this incredible home

House on wheels will forever be where the heart is for these students

Students from the Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast in Pontiac, Michigan stand in front of a house they built on campus before it is driven off to its permanent site. Contributed photo (Paul Galbenski/Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast)

Whenever they drive by the site, warm feelings will radiate: Joy. Pride. Satisfaction. Accomplishment. The idea that they’ve bettered the lives of others and a community.

All those emotions will likely dominate the minds of a group of high school students at Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast in Pontiac, Michigan, after the teens spent months on a house build that was far from ordinary.

From working through and having to endure a cold winter, to dealing with an unprecedented pandemic, to not having the house even be built at its final resting spot -- which led to a sight many never thought they would witness -- it was an experience the students will never forget.

‘They were really fired up'

Aaron Swett, a contractor technology instructor for 18 years on the school campus, said traditionally, he has had classes that have built houses -- but there was an idea floated this time around that was different.

The campus works with neighboring high schools to offer enhanced classes and learning opportunities that students might not be able to get at their high school buildings.

Students can typically spend half of their normal school day on the campus.

The idea brainstormed was essentially this: “What if we built a house at our campus and had it delivered to the site?”

It was something that was eventually welcomed, but it took approval from the school’s superintendent and board, and then the school had to partner with nonprofit agencies and on-site contractors to help oversee the construction, as well as secure permits.

The process took years, but when the students arrived for the start of the school year in September, the project to build a 1,200-square-foot house on campus and have it delivered was a go.

“They were really fired up,” Swett said.

But the house wasn’t the only project the class of 15 students would work on.

They also started construction on a roughly 1,500 square-foot pole barn that would be on campus permanently and used to store construction materials.

The lumber to start actual construction didn’t arrive until Oct. 31, so the students spent the initial weeks of classes going over blueprints and other logistics of the two projects.

Once the lumber arrived, the students were off and running, working two hours each class session.

“We were rocking and rolling,” Swett said.

But then came two obstacles, one expected and the other out of nowhere.

Contributed photo (Aaron Swett/Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast)

Facing the pandemic

As the holidays came and passed and school started back up in January, the end of the break meant the arrival of what was an expected challenge all along: winter.

Fortunately, it wasn’t as harsh as past winters have been in Michigan, but it still presented challenges trying to build through some snow, ice and the bitter cold temperatures.

“(We saw) anything that Michigan could throw at us -- we were literally using a 20-pound propane tank, like you have on your grill, and a torch, to melt the ground to get post holes in,” Swett said. “We battled.”

But the intensity of the project and getting the house delivered served as motivation for the students to push through.

“We just kept going,” said Miguel Roque, one of the students in the class and a recent graduate of Lake Orion High School. “We were working so much that the work itself kept us warm.”

Unfortunately, the next unforeseen obstacle couldn’t be overcome.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the school, and thus, construction, in March, leaving the group devastated.

The class was agonizingly close to finishing the house, with drywall, the roof, plumbing and electrical tasks finished -- and inspections for framing, insulation, and the correct number of drywall screws passed.

The big items still left at the time of the shutdown included siding, trim and doors.

“I was pushing these kids hard, in a good way,” Swett said. “We were getting a lot done and there was a lot of learning going on. We just hit the skids when the pandemic hit.”

But ultimately, there was the happy ending they all envisioned when the school year started.

Contributed photo (Aaron Swett/Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast)

Is that a house on the road?

Once construction was allowed to resume, the on-site contractors working with the students were able to finish what the teens started.

When it was done, the finished project was a 1,200-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The pole barn was not finished, but will be a project students in next year’s class can tackle.

After the house was done, the process of getting it to the site was set in motion.

It was only about a 1-mile drive from campus to the house site, but it wasn’t without a lot of planning ahead.

The house has just left the NE campus and on the way to it’s new home in the community of Pontiac!!@OaklandSchools OSTCNE students are building a better tomorrow!! @oakgov @davidwcoulter @oakgovMeisner @CHNmi @OLHSACommAction @OnSite24hrs

Posted by Paul Galbenski on Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Swett said there had to be permits secured in coordination with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, and they had to ensure there didn’t have to be overhanging trees cut, signs taken down, or mailboxes and fences on neighboring properties moved.

Weeks before the transport, flyers were placed on cars in the neighborhood saying that the cars would be towed if they were on the neighborhood streets while the house was in transit.

The day of the move finally arrived, and students donned their masks for photos in front of the house before it was placed on the truck and driven to the site, which was a sight to behold.

“I haven’t really seen that before,” said Devin Vorus, a recent graduate of Avondale High School. “Seeing it be moved was pretty cool. It seemed like at some place, it was going to scrape something. But surprisingly, it didn’t.”

Eventually, the house made it through the streets and was put into its permanent resting spot.

“There was a lot of picture taking and a lot of posing going on,” Swett said. “Everyone’s cellphones were out.”

The house is now officially for sale, available to any family who wants to start lifelong memories of living in it.

But make no mistake: The lifelong memories also will exist for the group that built it.

“To be able to look at that house one day in the future and know that I helped build that, it’s going to be something worth telling people,” said student Carlos Bazan, a recent graduate of Pontiac High School. “It’s exciting to have the thought of building a house for somebody. That is something really big. There’s a lot of people in the world that don’t have anything. To be able to build somebody a house, that goes a long way.”

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.