When Hunter Jenson was signing up for sophomore year classes at Skyview High, geometry sounded a little boring. But geometry and construction, a course taught at the Billings Career Center, caught his eye.
Three years later, the senior has helped build three houses as part of a multi-class effort run by the Career Center.
“The hands-on construction definitely pulled me in,” he said. “It’s fun to get out and not be stuck up at the one school all day.
“Before that I was being asked, 'What are you going to do when you grow up? Where do you want to go to college?'”
Doors and windows, framing and foundations, trim and tiling all have helped him answer that question. Right now, he’s thinking he’d like to focus on "Sheetrock and drywall."
“It’s really just opened up kind of a broader spectrum,” he said. “I can move into what I want seeing as how I’ve done everything.”
Students who work on the house receive grades for the classes they’re in — construction, design, electrical, landscape architecture, metals and the geometry and construction class Jenson initially took — but a significant measure of success is where they end up when they graduate.
If they’re getting placed in jobs, that’s a win for the Home Builders Association of Billings, which is partnering with the Career Center for the project's 40th year. The group provides financial support for the project and connects the school with industry professionals.
“The biggest challenge for the builders is finding the labor,” said association president Kim Welzenbach. Several workers at Billings construction firms have come up through classes that worked on a student-built house.
“It opens up their eyes to see, I’m good at this, I can make a living for myself,” she said.
The hands-on courses also appeal to students who might struggle in a more traditional classroom environment.
“They’re not as discouraged and not as likely to drop out,” Welzenbach said.
Students get regular instruction from subcontractors who come in to help with specialties.
“They like to listen to the subcontractors more than me because they get tired of me,” Career Center teacher Greg Meisenheimer said.
Teaching does slow down the house-building process; students typically come out to the house in three-hour classes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Instruction can take up a large chunk of time, and instructors try to give students as many repetitions on work as possible.
When making sure that a window is installed correctly, there’s no such thing as a B-minus. It’s perfect, or it’s not.
“We redo a lot,” said Career Center Principal Scott Anderson. “They expect the house to be as perfect as if any contractor has built it.”
“I was actually excited about (that),” said junior Jacob Beyers, who usually attends Senior High. When he started the class, he didn’t have much construction experience.
“I only knew little things,” he said. “I just helped my dad, pretty much holding things up for him.”
Now, he plans on pursuing a career in general contracting.
Work began on the six-bedroom, three-bathroom house in August. Career Center instructors and a variety of industry partners help lead the project, but students also have significant input on the design of the house.
As the work progresses, students learn to adapt plans to deadlines, budgets and materials available. Usually, homes are finished by about the end of the school year.
As students worked on the structure on Legends Way on Tuesday, stiff winds that whipped exposed wrap offered a harsh lesson about dealing with inclement weather. But siding was beginning to gobble up the right side of the house, and students worked on preparing materials in the backyard. Inside, fresh paint smelled strongly.
The house is sold with the help of a realtor, and the money from the sale is sown back into the program.