ASPEN — Tucked behind Aspen High School’s woodshop, a skeleton of a house waits for the touches that will make it a home: a mattress to be placed in its loft, a sink and a refrigerator to anchor its kitchen and stain to be coated on its interior walls.
The wooden beams forming its frame, propped on a trailer, stretch more than 13 feet off the ground and hint at a cozy space of 200 square feet that, come November, will be ready for one of Aspen School District’s staff members to move in. The construction crew — made up of students in the high school woodworking program — is studying blueprints and adding windows between their other academic demands, like cramming for geometry tests and turning in homework on time.
Aspen is one of a few mountain towns in the state looking beyond traditional apartments and houses to try to make a dent in the sweeping housing crisis that has prevented many educators and school staff from living in the places they teach and work. Local data from the County Clerk, Recorder’s and Assessor’s offices shows the median home price in Pitkin County closing in on about $2.3 million.
Both Aspen School District and Summit School District, which includes Breckenridge, are turning to tiny homes built by students as new options to house district employees. It’s the latest experiment among school districts in resort communities as they become more desperate to find affordable local spots for staff to live, one that also gives students an ambitious opportunity to learn construction and carpentry skills before they graduate.
But it isn’t a permanent fix, Aspen School District Superintendent Dave Baugh said.
“I see it as part of an overarching desire to be nimble and to make sure that folks have somewhere that’s warm, safe and dry,” he said, noting that tiny homes in Aspen could end up in a couple of mobile home parks in Pitkin County and on property owned by the district that has room for seven more units, per local zoning rules.
About 35% of Aspen School District’s 280 staff members live in housing owned by the district, but Baugh anticipates that over the next decade the district will have to devise housing plans for all its employees.
“It’s the first question from every hire’s mouth: Where am I going to live?” he said.
The idea for Aspen’s first tiny home was cemented after a weekend TV show inspired another education leader, who quickly grew excited about the breadth of skills students could learn from constructing every inch of a miniature home.
“This is exactly what our kids could do,” Ken Haptonstall, executive director of the Colorado River Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said he realized after watching an hour of “Tiny House Nation.” “They don’t have to build a 2,000-square-foot home to learn how to do electrical or plumbing. They could do it with a 300-square-foot home and learn the same thing.”
At the time, Haptonstall was focused on tapping into new ways for high schoolers to gain experience in career and technical education paths, particularly in construction, a promising field in the region that pays a decent wage. He secured a $350,000 grant in fall 2021 from the ZOMA Foundation, a philanthropic organization, to fund classroom construction of tiny homes, which he originally thought could serve as low-income housing. The project is expanding through a $1.4 million Opportunity Now Colorado grant, part of an $85 million initiative funding programs that train and strengthen the state’s workforce.
The Colorado River BOCES, which supports five school districts with educational services and resources, has tiny homes in various stages of construction in Aspen, Parachute and Carbondale while Haptonstall also talks to other districts, including Summit School District, about the possibility of its students beginning to piece together tiny homes for their teachers and other staff. The BOCES is determined to have students construct six tiny homes per year, Haptonstall said, and it generally takes about a year for a typical class to construct one.
Haptonstall said the cost of the tiny homes built by students totals about $75,000, which includes the full package of materials and tools — significantly cheaper than the market price of about $200,000 as the districts can forgo labor costs.
Doubling as a superintendent and housing developer
Aspen School District was the first district working with the BOCES to connect the need for students to master construction skills with the need for affordable housing for district employees. The district of about 1,600 students is spending an estimated $65,000 on the home, which covers the cost of the construction kit as well as the trailer it sits on, tools, windows and appliances. That money is coming from a $94.3 million bond approved by the community in 2020, which grew to $114 million, in part because of high investor interest, The Aspen Times reported. About $45 million of that amount is designated for teacher housing, Baugh said.
Aspen School District has invested in 102 units for staff ranging from one-bedroom apartments to homes with five bedrooms. The district charges rents between 20% and 25% of an employee’s monthly take home pay, Baugh said. That means educators pay significantly less for housing through the district, where a first-year teacher earns $50,750.
“I don’t see a day when we’ll be able to pay teachers enough to fully buy a free-market house, but that’s not just Aspen,” Baugh said. “That says something about Colorado teacher salaries, but more realistically it says a lot about Colorado real estate values.”
Another community struggling with a deficit of affordable homes is Frisco, where Summit School District Superintendent Tony Byrd is eager to introduce a few tiny homes as one component of a broader district plan to create a mix of housing for staff. Byrd said planting tiny homes in the community is “creative and innovative.” It’s also becoming necessary for superintendents like him to prioritize workforce housing — one of the critical factors in Summit School District’s efforts to recruit educators.
“It’s crazy that school districts are now having to be housing developers,” Byrd said. “I think any superintendent would say, ‘OK, yeah, we’re going to do this because we have to have staff, but this is a much bigger problem than us.’ It’s about the wealth gap in the United States.”
Aspen School District has already invested in a second tiny home for students to build for a staff member, while Baugh also aims to purchase another tiny home under construction by students in Parachute’s Garfield County School District 16.
Still, Baugh knows that a cluster of tiny homes is “an interim solution.” Most people, he said, aren’t likely to commit to a tiny home long term.
“It depends on how good the view is,” Baugh joked.
“Life skills taught here”
Woodworking students in Aspen have learned many of the essentials of construction as they’ve watched their tiny home take shape, from measuring and cutting plywood to insulating the floor. Their teacher, John Fisher, a 77-year-old general contractor who has built or remodeled 53 custom homes in Aspen alone, has steered them through each stage of building.
There have also been harder lessons gleaned along the way in their school’s wood tech room, which displays a sign reading, “Life skills taught here.”
For instance, it’s important to consider seasons when diving into construction. Students at Aspen High School, who began the building process about a year ago, had to repeatedly shovel snow and ice off the trailer ahead of picking up any tools once winter weather hit.
“It was a lot of work before we even began,” said Max Sherman, a junior who quickly graduated from making pizza boards and wooden bowls to joining the tiny home construction crew.
He remembers questioning how he and his classmates would finish the tiny house by the end of the last school year. They have since started working on the home again this fall, with Sherman narrowing his focus.
“When you go step by step,” he said, “it doesn’t feel as daunting as when you look at the whole project in one.”
Another tough lesson: finding a way forward when directions don’t pan out.
Senior Eli Kissel, who has largely taken the lead on the tiny home project, was thrown into rapid problem-solving mode when the blueprints guiding their construction process were off in their measurements. Kissel and Fisher, Aspen High School’s career and technical education teacher who focuses on instruction in woodworking and drafting, had to scale their work based on pictures, but that particular hurdle didn’t dim Kissel’s enthusiasm.
“It doesn’t really feel like a class,” he said. “You’re not really doing class stuff. You’re still learning a lot, but you’re super hands-on.”
Students like sophomore Ryley Benson, who plans to pursue a career in pipe welding, overcame a personal challenge while working on the tiny home. Benson, who is scared of heights, helped build the second level of the house, standing only on lengths of plywood and ladders.
“There was no real pressure for me to face that fear,” Benson said, “but I still just wanted to do it. I pressured myself to do it, and then I motivated myself and pushed myself.”
The to-do list looming over the students is long, with flooring, siding, plumbing, electricity, roofing, installing cabinets and other major tasks still waiting to be tackled.
Fisher wants his students to build up skills that will carry forward long beyond high school. The tiny home ranks alongside other projects that have challenged his students over the years, such as kitchen cabinets, vanities and roll-top desks.
In the 53 years he has taught at the high school, he’s seen graduates excel as general contractors, cabinetmakers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers.
One key takeaway for his classes, he said, is “the sense of knowing that they can do the work, the sense of knowing that they have some skill that they can take with them.”
And a longtime resident of Aspen — Fisher built his home in 1988 after spending eight years in an Aspen duplex that he also built for his family — he is now giving the kind of home to district staff that once cradled him. He lived in a mobile home the first four years he taught in Aspen when he earned between $6,000 and $7,000 a year.
“Teaching doesn’t provide that great of an income,” Fisher said, “so I think it’s great that teachers have an opportunity to buy or live in something that they can afford.”