Bemidji State prepares to sell student-built tiny house to fund scholarship

·8 min read

Jul. 23—BEMIDJI — In the market for a new, cozy, sustainable and mobile place to live?

The Bemidji State University Technology, Art and Design department might have just the right thing.

Bemidji State students have worked on planning, designing and building a green and stylish 206-sq. foot tiny house since 2017. The project was held up for a bit due to the pandemic but is now fully complete and ready for residents.

The university is preparing to sell the pint-sized abode — which will be up for auction to be bid on by the public in August. Funds from its sale will go toward an endowment scholarship fund.

About the house

On Wednesday, July 14, professors Dave Towley and Tim Brockman gave the Pioneer a tour of the home, touting its functionality and amenities.

The tiny house includes energy-efficient windows and structurally insulated panels that will reduce utility bills as well as rooftop solar panels for off-the-grid living. It can, however, be connected to grid power when needed.

It has a full-sized mattress, as well as a sleeper sofa. The kitchen has full-sized cabinets, a full-sized fridge, a three burner stove and an oven.

What are the benefits of tiny house living? Towley said some have mentioned the idea of using it recreationally, as a cabin, an Airbnb and even a remote working office. Of course, living in it as a normal home — just smaller — is also an option.

"During the pandemic, people were buying sheds for remote office space. People were buying (tiny houses) for remote offices. This certainly could be a remote office, it could be a recreation property. Some folks have seen it and they said, 'Oh, what a great Airbnb, you could buy a lake lot and put it on the lake lot,' that kind of thing. Other people are saying, 'That'd be a great downsize (home) for two people.'"

Years in the marking

The project started in the fall of 2016 when School of Technology, Art and Design students taking classes with Tim Brockman, professor of TAD, and David Towley, assistant professor of TAD, were tasked with developing design concepts for a tiny house.

Design concepts for the house were produced by students in Sachel Josefson's Building Systems course, and the project was coordinated by Towley's applied project management students.

The construction was done by students in a built environment course under the guidance of Tim Brockman. The course focuses on the technology used to create a man-made environment.

"It was a student idea," Brockman explained. "In one of my classes, one of the local churches reached out to us and said they needed a playhouse built. They would buy all the materials, and we could help with the design and the building. We took it on as a community service project.

"When the students were building this small playhouse —which was very cute with a front porch, railing and shutters — they said, 'Brockman, Why don't we just build a tiny house?' That got them excited about the possibility of designing it. We worked with the students to reach out to other areas of the design students and faculty. That got the project going. Then, it was the willingness of the department and the university to say, 'we'll provide the initial $25,000 to do the project.'"

Most of the actual construction took place in 2018. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at Bemidji State on Earth Day 2019 to celebrate the nearly completed project and the many students who were involved in its construction.

"We had anticipated it being done last year, but of course with the pandemic, we couldn't have students on campus to finish it," Towley said. "We did a few things, like the base of the table was finished, Dr. Brockman and I just put a tabletop on it. By and large, everything here is student work. We just did touch-up paint and that kind of thing."

The house was almost entirely student-designed and constructed, which served as a great learning opportunity for them.

"The principal benefit is the student's education, the secondary benefit is to fund scholarships," Towley said of the project. "If you go on (the BSU website) and look at the virtual renderings, they're very close to what we actually built. There are subtle differences, but this is by and large what they designed.

"They learned about spatial references. They actually laid the footprints of the chassis which is underneath here, on the floor in Bridgeman Hall with masking tape. Then they used different cardboard cutouts and whatnot to try and get an idea of spatial relationships in a relatively confined space. From that point on, then they went to the design phase."

Student takeaway

Aside from obvious construction and design skills — students learned a lot about the highs and lows of real-world construction. Dealing with deadlines, budget constraints, and other people.

"Students experienced a lot of frustration and a lot of overcoming that with problem-solving. That's the reality of life as we know it today; corporate America expects you to be a problem solver," Brockman said. "Communication is important. Communication, and problem-solving can keep frustration at bay. And it was a hard lesson for some of our students to learn."

Brockman said that the best outcome was seeing what a successful learning platform the project was for the students as well as faculty.

"It allowed them to have real-life experience," he continued. "It's one thing to talk about managing a build, it's another thing when you see how at times dysfunctional it can be. Those are experiences that are extremely valuable because when you go into the industry, you'll know what to expect."

Towley said his project management students were tasked with learning to lead each other without being too authoritative.

"It was a great learning platform," Towley said. "We have some students who anecdotally used this as a reference. Something when you go to a job interview, they ask, what have you done? The tiny house captures the imagination. And I've had a few students share with me that they talked about that."

"We learned our lessons, I'd say it'd be fair to say, on this house. This was a pilot. Are the things we do differently next time? Probably. But I'm very proud of what the students did," Towley added.

Community effort

Both inside and outside BSU, the tiny house was a community affair.

Besides students in TAD, students in sustainability programs helped ensure the project was efficient and environmentally friendly, and students in marketing helped promote the dwelling.

"There are a lot of people behind this," Towley said. "We have had wholehearted support from the very top of the university, right through our department, and we couldn't have done it without that support."

Many businesses and industry experts lending their time, expertise, materials or finances to the house.

"It's wired by licensed electricians. It's plumbed by licensed plumbers, but the cabinetry and shelves, that was our students, they built everything when it came to that," Towley said.

The following businesses contributed to the project: Frontier Electric, Wanzek Construction, a MasTec company, Marvin Windows and Doors, Northwoods Lumber, Minnesota State Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence, Extreme Panels, Dick's Plumbing and Heating, St. Cloud Refrigeration, Inc, Done Right Drywall LLC, Sherwin-Williams Store, Potlatch Corporation, Simonson Design, Bemidji Welder Supplies Inc., Milwaukee Tools, Acme Tools, Frizzell Furniture Gallery, BSU Alumni Association, Twin City Discount Granite, Pleasureland RV Center in Brainerd, Kraus-Anderson Construction Company, KB RV Center of Bemidji and LePier Shoreline and Outdoors.

Going forward, both Brockman and Towley said reflecting on a successful project, they would like to do something like this again.

"Now that we've seen the light at the end of the tunnel, it was certainly worth the time. Students really enjoyed it and learned a great deal from it," Towley said.

Brockman said he doesn't see the potential for this to become an annual project, but said he hopes he and his students can work on more multidisciplinary projects in the future.

"I do see the potential for the department coming together and doing projects," he said. "I think with the outcome of this, we see the benefits of these multi-discipline projects that extend a year, maybe two years. Whether it be a tiny house or a project is as interesting as the TAD talks, is for the future to decide."

The tiny house will be offered for sale to the public using a sealed bid process starting at $50,000, which will cover the university's $25,000 of direct expenses and $43,000 of in-kind donations. All bids must include $5,000 in earnest funds and will be accepted on a rolling basis beginning Aug. 9 with the highest bids posted at www.TADTinyHouse.com every Friday. The winning bid will be announced on Aug. 24.

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