Curt Berger stopped coaching tennis and wrestling a decade ago, but he never retired his enthusiasm for teaching high school students about teamwork and goal setting. He just shifted from sports to homebuilding.
On Tuesday, June 28, Berger will be standing proudly with his students as people walk through a two-story dwelling designed, built, decorated and landscaped by teenagers.
This is the eighth custom house on Southwest Angus Court in Hermiston completed by members of the Columbia Basin Student Homebuilders Program.
The group’s logo, drawn by a student, shows a house with a graduation cap as the roof. Students named the 3.25-acre development Fieldstone Crossing, which has 22 homesites on two streets.
Berger says many high schools would like to train future tradespeople and educate students about the money-saving benefits of do-it-yourself home improvements and repairs. Land to build on and the funds to start a residential construction program are the typical roadblocks, he says.
In Oregon, Forest Grove High School’s annual Viking House project started in 1975. Sherwood High School had a homebuilding project in 1981, but budget cuts shut down the program for 30 years before it was revived. The first of the new Bowmen Houses sold in 2013.
The Columbia Basin Student Homebuilders Program, which is open to high school students from Hermiston, Umatilla and Stanfield, was launched in 2013 with a $372,674 Career and Technical Education grant from the Oregon Department of Education.
The money was used to buy equipment and materials to build the first house. Proceeds from the sale of each new home fund the next project.
Coach Berger reminds his crew of students that the house they build will stay in the community for a long time.
“This is not a term paper you throw away,” Berger says. “We’re under pressure. Winning is completing the house on time.”
His says the team works in dust, dirt, cold and heat. Despite the challenges, they show up on time, learn how to do the work and do what they said they would do.
Caitlin Anderholm, 18, joined the program as a freshman. Over four years, she graduated from construction classes to hands-on building.
The loud and heavy circular saw no longer intimates her. And when she moves into her first apartment this fall to attend Green River College in Washington state, majoring in earth science, she has confidence she can make repairs.
She says Coach Berger’s encouraging teaching style is “Live and learn. You will make mistakes but he’ll always be there to say, ‘Don’t do it again.’ It’s a good environment.”
Hundreds of high school students participate in each build, says Berger. Over the school year, students enrolled in computer-assisted design, construction and landscaping classes visit the site.
With guidance from instructors, architects and engineers, students design the floor plan to fit the lot. Then about a dozen seniors spend two hours each school day working, from digging the foundation to sealing air leaks after the Energy Trust of Oregon’s final inspection.
The program receives guidance from craftsmen and suppliers who are members of the Northeast Oregon Homebuilder’s Association.
Advertising students help real estate agent Bennett Christianson of Christianson Realty Group market the property for sale.
None of the original owners of the seven previous homes has moved out and this year’s house sold in January for $499,000, when sheet rock was still visible on the walls.
Demand for housing is high in Oregon and “our reputation is good,” says Berger, 60, who has been an educator in the Hermiston School District for 31 years. Before being named the student homebuilder director, Berger taught vocational classes. He later earned an Oregon contractor’s license.
Professionals are hired to install trusses, electricity and plumbing. After graduation, students who help finish the property before the open house are paid.
To help out during the pandemic, Gideon Fritz, who graduated from Hermiston High in 2019, worked afternoons on the house after he completed his online coursework to earn his degree at Oregon State University. He now works as Berger’s assistant.
Pandemic supply chain issues didn’t delay the project, says Berger, but scheduling already overworked tradespeople created gaps. Instead of taking downtime, the students built sheds.
“I told my students, ‘COVID is not going to shut us down,’” he says. “It’s like winning the state title, focus on the goal and put in the work. The past does not guarantee success.”
Berger says people attending the first open house were surprised by the quality of the construction.
“They thought it would be a shack built sideways with crooked doors,” he says. “Now people know these are the nicest homes in town”, with high-end features such as a stone entryway, illuminated crown molding and an outdoor living space with low-maintenance landscaping.
“These are Street of Dreams-level homes for under $500,000,” he says.
The new two-story house has 2,330 square feet of living space under a roof with four gables. The temperature of the top floor bonus room is maintained by an energy-efficient electric mini-split system.
On the main level, the living room has a stone fireplace wall that rises 22 feet to the ceiling. The primary suite has a vaulted ceiling, walk-in closet and a spa-like bathroom with a tub, shower and walls clad in cultured marble.
There are two more bedrooms, another bathroom and a powder room. “A barn door conceals the laundry room and the wood is real knotty alder,” says Berger. “They are just gorgeous, I want to hug every door.”
Energy efficient features, built above code standards, include enhanced insulation, heating, cooling and ventilation systems, says Berger. The kitchen has a five-burner gas stove, quartz counters and a center island.
There is a convenient central vacuum system, SimpliSafe security system and speakers throughout the house.
A sliding glass door opens to the barbecue area overlooking the lawn, raised bed planters and a space plumbed for hot tub in the fenced backyard.
The three-car garage has a 10-foot-wide bay door to park an RV or boat. The home is ready for a solar system and electric car charging station.
The open house is 1-6 p.m. June 28 at 852 S.W. Angus Court in Hermiston.
— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072