Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Big Idea–Small House: Harrisburg students compete to design a tiny house–and you can buy it.

Teacher Sheri Kutz and students from Marshall Math Science Academy show cardboard models of their tiny houses.

The room hummed with the collective energy from the four educators and community leaders around the table. They had a big dream to build something small—a tiny house.

Sheri Kutz, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teacher at Harrisburg’s Marshall Math Science Academy, said that she recently began wondering about homelessness and alternative housing after buying, fixing and flipping her first house.

She delved into information about projects like one in Seattle, which housed the homeless in tiny houses.

“I thought about my eighth-grade curriculum, thought about my eighth-grade students,” she said. “I know they are very capable and thought, if a city can do that, why can’t my kids?”

This project fits right in with Marshall’s “service through science” philosophy, said Principal Ryan Jones.

“What makes us a little different is we do a lot of service learning tied to our mission of STEAM,” he said, adding “art and design” to the traditional STEM curriculum.

All of Marshall’s 88 eighth-graders participated in the project, which began last fall. The students worked in teams of four, with each student creating his or her own tiny house design. They had three constraints. Houses had to cost no more than $2,200 with $600 off the top for framing; they had to be 720 square feet; and they had to be accessible.

Students researched items for building the homes, like kitchen cabinets, dining tables and appliances. Everything in the design had to be proportional. After design drawings were complete, students made a cardboard prototype of their houses, submitted financial statements and drew their houses in SketchUp, a 3D modeling program.

“I was really nervous, but excited because I had so many ideas in my head,” said Marshall student Jayleigh King. “When I found out it was a tiny house, I started stressing because you have to compact so many things into a little space.”

King said she liked the group aspect of the work. It was especially helpful in figuring out how to fit everything into the house. Working in a group brought the students’ strengths together.

Designing was only one aspect of the project. Students had to write daily reflections on what they learned and the challenges of the day. They were also learning about homelessness, alternative housing and urban planning. But just talking about all of this wouldn’t do.

“What brings about education for a child is when something comes to fruition,” Kutz said. “So, I didn’t just want to talk about alternative housing or just understand it. I want what they did to become a reality. I didn’t know how to do that on my own.”

Therefore, Kutz reached out to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Harrisburg. Executive Director Yinka Adesubokan liked the idea right away, especially from a workforce development aspect.

“It’s one thing to build a house in a community,” he said. “But if you aren’t educating that next generation of people, you are always going to have the same problem.”

Adesubokan spoke to Kutz’s classes about city planning, zoning and history. But Habitat’s involvement went beyond instruction—they actually will build one of these tiny houses.

Each of Kutz’s five classes will pick a winning house, which will be 3D printed. The groups then will present their designs to a panel of judges from the community, which will choose the ultimate winner. The selected house design will be auctioned at Habitat’s 13th Annual “Art Builds Homes” art auction, March 23, at the Hershey Country Club. Habitat then will build the house wherever the high bidder wants it.

King’s group won the design for her class. It was tough deciding which of her group’s projects should be represented to the class competition. She said that each group member wanted theirs to be the one to win, but, in the end, the right design was entered.

“We all knew whose was better,” she said. “We did the right thing.”

The house project also offers Marshall students who have known displacement themselves the opportunity to be a part of a solution. There are 350 to 500 displaced students in the Harrisburg school district, said Kirsten Keys, the district’s public relations coordinator.

Moreover, the students have been spending time with each other throughout the project—meeting, sharing ideas and encouraging one another. They’ve created synergy.

According to Kutz, this relationship-building has been hugely beneficial in itself, leading to mutual understanding and support among students who otherwise would have little reason to interact and cooperate. And that’s a lesson with a far deeper impact than just learning how to design a tiny house.

The annual Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area’s “Art Builds Homes” art auction takes place March 23, starting at 6 p.m., at the Hershey Country Club, 1000 E. Derry Rd., Hershey. For tickets and information, visit or the Facebook page.

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