At a busy lot in Orem, it’s students vs. the clock, as they race to get walls up before the first snow falls.
If the student-home follows last year’s trend, it will be sold above its listed price within minutes of becoming available. The sales provide an influx of cash to the self-sufficient Alpine School District career and technical education homebuilding program, but it’s not selling the homes that’s threatening to make the program stumble in a booming local construction market, it’s getting the land to begin with.
“We really struggle to get anyone to sell to us,” said Michelle Price, the director of career and technical education in the Alpine School District.
The district strives to purchase developed lots in areas people would want in desirable areas and in a location that’s easily accessible for the program’s students. Price said the lots available at a fair price tend to be on busy streets, and developers commonly don’t want to sell lots that could be lucrative.
The most recent lot the Alpine School District purchased was approved by the district’s Board of Education earlier this month at a price of $116,000 for 0.23 acres. The lot is undeveloped, which means the district will have to infuse extra cash into the land to construct things such as a sidewalk and sewer before construction on the site can begin.
The district purchased land for students to build homes on for the next four years, but with rising construction costs, a growing demand for land and a shrinking supply, it’s going to need partnerships with developers to keep the students working.
Students moved about the frame of the Orem site with familiarity Wednesday. They kept busy, wearing orange vests customized with their names and greeting their instructor with a friendly “coach” as they prepared to leave for the day.
A hundred career and technical education students split between four classes and two homes will have finished the houses by the end of the school year, and interior design students will help with decorating the homes.
The program started as the Building Institute in 1994 by the Utah Valley Home Builders Association after the association heard from builders who were seeing a lack of education for those entering the field. The association worked with Utah County’s three school districts before districts took over the programs.
Students are building more homes now than they were then, but the skills gained have remained the same, and many students will go on to pursue careers in construction.
“They get to taste it all to see whether they really are enthused and excited about that,” said Deann Huish, the public relations and government affairs director for the Utah Valley Home Builders Association.
It’s not uncommon for the students’ grades in other subjects to rise as they work on the homes.
“Their GPAs are going up because all of a sudden math made sense,” Huish said. “You need math to build a house.”
The students see math in a new light as they use it throughout the construction process. Bret Goodwin, a licensed general contractor and the instructor at the Orem house, refers to it as teaching math in reverse.
“To them, it’s new because it’s coming from a different angle,” Goodwin said.
He’s on site throughout the duration of the project, but lets the students loose. If a student messes up a part of the project, he makes them fix it, or they’ll notice the mistake further down the line. Goodwin said it’s a good incentive for students to correct mistakes early in the process instead of waiting for it to become a problem later.
The students practically do everything on the house, from surveying the land on day one to doing supervised electrical and plumbing work.
“It’s start to finish,” Goodwin said.
The students start the project by getting to know the home’s neighbors. At the Orem location, that process included building a wheelchair ramp and pouring concrete around the home next door to make it more wheelchair friendly.
The program also won’t use donated materials that would lower the selling point for the house and therefore lower property values in its neighborhood.
The hands-on experience and opportunity to acquire new schools attracted Kaleb DeMille, a senior at American Fork High School, to the program.
“It sounded really cool to do it from start to finish,” DeMille said.
He’s considering pursuing a job in construction, and said even if he doesn’t, he thinks the skills he’s learned on-site will come in handy when he has his own home.
In the class, he has completed tasks such as pouring concrete and framing, and also learned from professionals who came in to talk to students about careers in construction.
Students dedicate four class periods to working on the home. The students are on-site every school day, as are their instructors, who are licensed contractors. For now, students need their own transportation to the site. Price said the district is discussing ways to provide transportation for the next academic year.
Multiple factors contribute to rising construction costs in Utah County, including tariffs and a greater demand for materials due to homes damaged in natural disasters.
“It is kind of a perfect storm for housing costs to go up,” Huish said.
The slender-shaped Utah Valley also provides a limited amount of usable land, and large families, universities and a booming tech sector are bringing more people to the area.
“Our affordability has been a supply issue because we have such a high demand,” Huish said.
A labor shortage that started in 2009 led to increased wages for construction workers and fewer people on crews means jobs are taking longer.
The Alpine School District’s career and technical education home helps to infuse students into the construction industry. And as Utah County’s construction industry has boomed, so has the program.
This year, the program turned away five to 10 students, and the district is considering options to expand the program. That could include a third built site, but Price said that’s dependent on if the district can secure land. There’s also options for students to flip a home.
“We want every student who wants to be here to have the opportunity,” Price said.
There’s affordable land in Eagle Mountain, but Price said it’s too far for students on the east side of the district to travel every school day.
Great relationships mean the district gets fair prices on materials, but the district is feeling the costs rise.
“It is impacting us as well as everyone,” Price said.
The student-built homes include more features than the average home, and the homes meet all the requirements and codes required of other homes.
“They are good-quality homes,” Price said.
The hands-on experience on an active construction site and a booming industry mean the program’s students don’t have to search for jobs. Goodwin said Hogan & Associates Construction came to the site last year, hired all the students who hadn’t yet found jobs on the spot and then returned with human resources, all without requiring a resume.