Mission-rich construction projects frame new solutions around homelessness, leave lasting impact on student builders
The clouds were gray, the rain was cold and the wind was strong. Spring was roaring in like a lion on the mid-April day as precipitation turned the dirt into mud where the future site of The Cottages by Siena Francis would sit. As dignitaries, community organizations, partners and donors wedged chrome-plated shovels into the soft earth near 16th and Charles streets, the environment outside the tent used to host the groundbreaking event underscored the importance of reliable shelter.
A little over two months after that gloomy Midwestern day, Metropolitan Community College construction and building science students finished construction on seven single-occupancy dwellings they have built over the past year inside the Construction Education Center at the Fort Omaha Campus. On July 25, the tiny homes were delivered to the microcommunity operated by the homelessness outreach organization.
The Siena Francis project, which is being led by Arch Icon Development, will be a 50-unit, gated community that opens in March 2023. It is designed to help people who have experienced homelessness transition from the nonprofit’s permanent supportive housing complex into their own tiny home. Occupants will pay subsidized rent for the nearly 300-square-foot houses, with each resident’s payment not to exceed 30% of their income.
Each unit will have a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room, as well as a covered front porch. Before being delivered to the nonprofit in July, the tiny homes doubled as working classroom projects for MCC construction and building science students. Unlike most student work, these homes won’t be pulled apart, stripped down and rebuilt for future lessons. They will be places the students can visit years after graduating.
They represent new opportunities for people who have lived periods of their lives in places without house numbers.
“Having a project that is being delivered to the community adds to the value of what we’re doing in the classroom,” said Trevor Secora, a construction technology instructor with the College. “The students seem to put a little more effort into it and up their game a little bit. They know somebody is going to use it. They’re going to be able to drive by it after graduation and be able to tell their family and friends, ‘I helped do that.’”
Franklin Garay, a 22-year-old MCC student from Lexington, Nebraska, started pursuing his Associate in Applied Science in Construction Technology in spring 2021. As he worked on the finishing touches of the tiny homes, like the siding, shingles and soffit, he remembered when the first pallets of wood for the flooring arrived on the loading dock.
Garay said solving the unique construction challenges that a tiny home presents are among the most technical aspects of the build.
“It’s crazy to think of everything you can fit into these spaces,” said Garay, who wants to build custom houses when he completes his degree. “Working in these tight quarters is the hardest part, but we’re getting some great experience building in these small spaces, and you feel great to be able to help other people out.”
Jack Hinsley, a 19-year-old MCC student who graduated from Omaha North High School last year, said the project connects to his ambitions differently from Garay, but still in an applicable way.
“I want to start a community music project building wooden instruments, so this is the first step of learning how to woodwork with very refined details. The finishing work for the tiny homes is similar because of how specific it is and needing to get the right cuts,” Hinsley said.
Hinsley added he enjoyed the collaboration and camaraderie developed throughout the project with other students.
“I think it’s important for students to see that finished product wheeled out because it’s been different groups of us attacking different parts of this project. It’s like seeing all the pieces of the puzzle put together,” Hinsley said. “Getting this done was a huge learning experience to see what it takes to make things run efficiently at a job site.”
Garay has a strong sense of gratitude for attending MCC with projects like these in the works.
“I just want to thank the community and everyone involved who participated in this project for giving us the opportunity to build these tiny houses,” Garay said. “I hope they enjoy them.”22
One NeighborWorks America project wraps up, two more planned
The tiny homes project highlights the College’s participation in a series of affordable housing solutions in Omaha over the past year as urban areas throughout the nation attempt new approaches to better serve the unhoused.
In addition to seven student-constructed residences that will serve people at The Cottages by Siena Francis, MCC architectural design technology students designed a 1,100-square-foot ranch that they completed in the Center for Advanced and Emerging Technology, all in partnership with the nonprofit NeighborWorks America.
In order for the capstone project to be delivered to the neighborhood off 25th and Fort streets, blocks away from Fort Omaha Campus, it had to be designed so it could be separated into four different sections and reconnected on top of a crawl space foundation. Two more similar projects are already planned with NeighborWorks America, a congressionally chartered nonprofit that supports redevelopment projects in the United States and Puerto Rico.
“Some of the people that our projects impact and benefit hit pretty close to home for some of our students as well. It benefits the neighborhood where they go to school,” Secora said. “There’s a sense of pride there because they know they are using skills that they’ll continue to use when they leave the program.”
‘Granny pod’ prototype intercollegiate partnership
MCC students also completed construction of a prototype for a “granny pod,” a detached, modified and prefabricated bungalow. They are being introduced as alternatives to assisted living that enable elders to stay near their families but live independently. Designed by the engineering departments of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Omaha, the granny pod was moved to the Baxter Arena campus where it is spending the next two years having its design tested.
“The granny pod has a solar panel roof, so it’s able to produce its own energy, along with highly rated insulation with special doors and windows. It’s an advanced design,” Secora said. “It’s called a granny pod because you can drop it in your backyard and grandma can live there without having to tie into the grid.”
Secora said these kinds of creative projects are generating community interest and support for future ones given the community need.23
Real-world educational experience with community impact
According to Siena Francis, on any given day in Omaha, about 900 people are in need of supportive housing. Siena Francis served more than 3,000 people through its programs in 2021. The organization provided more shelter last year than any other in its 50-year history.
“I am not the expert on what model is going to end homelessness and make affordable housing readily available — apartment buildings, tiny homes or small houses. But whatever the structure is, it needs to be built,” Secora said. “There is a huge demand for skilled labor out there that can lead to meaningful careers in the construction industry. Teaching students these skills while adding value to the community during their training is a source of a lot of pride in our construction and building science program.”
Secora said having the support of MCC administration, the facilities to do the work and strong community partnerships are critical to making bold projects happen.
“Having the administration believe in what we’re doing and trust us to do it, and being able to align the donors and community that has helped fund these buildings that we’re operating in, that is a huge part of our success,” Secora said.
Like the residents who will soon move into their new homes next year, MCC students can continue to make progress on their goals without fretting about the elements.
“Our students can build 1,600-square-foot homes indoors, 365 days a year in a 72-degree environment. I know a lot of skilled trade workers who are jealous about that,” Secora said. “That means we don’t have to slow down our education and don’t have to worry about whether it’s going to rain or not
For more information about the construction and building science program, visit mccneb.edu/construction or email Trevor Secora at email@example.com.