Rohnert Park students get hands-on training building a tiny house

Danny Fructuoso installs an electrical outlet in a tiny house during the Sustainable Construction class at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park on Thursday, March 30, 2017. The house will be able to function completely off the grid. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Tape outlines the spot where the restroom and shower will be installed. Next to it will be a small kitchen, and just above that, a loft.

There isn’t room for much more in the 153-square-foot tiny house. But it’s like a dream home for Jordan Bates, one of dozens of Rancho Cotate High School students helping build it.

“I kind of want to buy it myself, but I don’t have $20,000 lying around,” she said while working on the utility closet behind the house.

With their own cable television show, tiny houses are becoming popular, particularly for cash-strapped millennials who want to own homes but not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sonoma County also is planning to build a cluster of tiny homes to provide shelter for a dozen homeless.

The fate of Rancho Cotate’s unit still is unclear, but its intent is provide the Rohnert Park students hands-on construction training in carpentry, plumbing and roofing, as well as get them thinking about consumerism and the tiny house movement, said Cole Smith, the engineering and design teacher.

The house will be equipped with a composting toilet, water filtration system and solar panels. It’ll fully function off the grid once it’s complete, Smith said.

Students in his morning computer-assisted design classes created the blueprints for the house, while the students in his fifth- and sixth-period sustainable construction classes started in November bringing those plans to life.

Between 80 to 100 students are working on the project, Smith said.

“The kids are doing everything,” he said. “It’s an empowering project. They get to build something big.”

It’s not the first time his students built a micro home. Three years ago, they constructed a similar house, which eventually was sold to an Occidental man, said Smith, who two decades ago as a teen in the Midwest built a 20-foot-by-20-foot hunting shack in class for the high school principal.

“It was one of those things that stuck with me,” he said. “That’s what I’d like — to be memorable for them.”

Rancho Cotate received a $20,000 grant from Sonoma County’s Career Technical Education Foundation to cover the cost of the project, Smith said. Local businesses also have donated materials, including a wine barrel his students plan to convert to a table.

The micro house is parked outside his shop on the east side of campus, where two dozen students gathered one recent afternoon to go over their to-do list. The power outlets needed covers. Students also needed to install roof brackets, sheath the interior walls and work on the window trims.

“With a little luck, we’ll finish it this year,” Smith said before class.

Jonathan Gangl wants to be an architect. The 16-year-old junior said the project has been invaluable. Not only did he create a three-dimensional model of it, he also did some roofing and framing, as well as installing wall panels on the house.

“This thing is being built hour by hour. It’s impressive,” Gangl said, assessing the work that’s already gone to the 13-foot-high house, which sits on a trailer to make it easier to move around.

“This place is going to look nice.”

Smith hasn’t decided the fate of the latest house; it could be used in some capacity to help the homeless or sold.

“If we sell it, the money comes back to the program,” he said.

Senior Kyle Whidden, who’s helping oversee the project, spent his afternoon building the utility closet.

It’s challenging working with students at different class times, he said. Students must work together and make sure they cut, measure and assemble materials exactly the same, otherwise it can throw the tasks off.

“Communication is key,” said Whidden, 18, who plans to study mechanical engineering after high school.

Like Bates, he could see himself living in that space. “I like the fact that as high schoolers we are building something like that,” he said.

Bates at first was intimidated about enrolling in the course. She didn’t know a thing about construction and the majority of the students were male. When it came to selecting the class, she signed up on a whim. She’s since found more confidence, and now wants to go to college to study engineering.

“If a guy can do it, so can I,” she said, while assessing where to put a door on the utility closet.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.