Kurt Berger stopped coaching tennis and wrestling a decade ago, but he never retired from his enthusiasm for teaching high school students teamwork and goal setting. He just switched from sports to home building.
On Tuesday, June 28, Berger will stand proudly with his students as people walk into a two-story residence designed, built, decorated and shaped by teens.
This is the eighth custom house in Southwest Angus Court in Hermiston was completed by members of the Columbia Basin Student Home Building Program.
The group’s logo, drawn by a student, shows a house with a cap graduated as a roof. The students named the 3.25-acre Fieldstone Crossing development, which includes 22 home sites across two streets.
Berger says that many high schools want to train future traders and educate students about the money-saving benefits of DIY home improvements and repairs. He says the land to be built on and the funds needed to start a residential construction program are typical roadblocks.
In Oregon, Forest Grove High School’s annual Viking House project began in 1975. Sherwood High School had a house-building project in 1981, but budget cuts halted the program for 30 years before it was revived. The first new Bowmen homes were 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 purchase equipment and materials for the construction of the first house. Proceeds from the sale of each new home finance the upcoming 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 to throw away,” Berger says. “We are under pressure. Winning completes home on time.”
He 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 Underholm, 18, joined the program as a freshman. Over the course of four years, I graduated from construction classes to practical construction.
The circular saw was loud and heavy no longer approaching her. And when she moved into her first apartment this fall to attend Green River College in Washington state, majoring in earth sciences, she was confident she could make repairs.
She says Coach Berger’s encouraging teaching style is “Live and learn. You’ll 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 building, Berger says. Throughout the school year, students enrolled in computer-aided design, construction, and landscaping classes visit the site.
With the guidance of 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 the air leak after an Energy Trust final inspection in Oregon.
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 the Christianson Realty Group in marketing properties for sale.
None of the original owners of the previous seven homes had left, and the house sold this year in January for $499,000, when rocky boulders were still visible on the walls.
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Demand for housing is high in Oregon and “our reputation is good,” says Berger, 60, who has worked as a teacher in the Hermiston School District for 31 years. Before being appointed director of student housing construction, Berger taught professional classes. He later obtained an Oregon contractor’s license.
Professionals are hired for truss installation, electrical and plumbing. After graduation, students who help finish the property before the open house are paid.
To help during the pandemic, Gideon Fritz, who graduated from Hurmston High School in 2019, worked afternoons at home after completing online courses for his degree at Oregon State University.
Berger says pandemic supply chain issues haven’t delayed the project, but the already overburdened scheduling of merchants has created gaps. Instead of stopping work, the students built sheds.
“I told my students, ‘COVID is not going to shut us down,'” he says. “It’s like winning a state title, focusing on the goal and getting down to business. The past does not guarantee success.
Berger says people who attended the first open house were surprised by the quality of the build.
“They thought it would be a hut built on both sides with crooked doors,” he says. “People now know these are the most beautiful homes in town,” with upscale features like a stone entryway, illuminated crown moldings, and outdoor living space with low-maintenance landscaping.
“These are homes at the Street of Dreams level for under $500,000,” he says.
The new two-story home has 2,330 square feet of living space under a four-gable roof. The reward room temperature is maintained upstairs by a small, energy-efficient electrical split system.
On the main floor, the living room has a stone fireplace wall that rises 22 feet to the ceiling. The basic suite has a vaulted ceiling, wardrobe, and spa-like bathroom with bathtub and shower, and planted marble walls.
There are two more bedrooms, another bathroom and a shower room. “The barn door hides the laundry room and the wood is really complicated,” Berger says. “They’re just so cool, I want to hug every door.”
Berger says the energy-efficiency features, built above code standards, include improved insulation, heating, cooling and ventilation systems. The kitchen has a five-burner gas stove, quartz counters, and a central island.
There is a convenient central vacuum system, SimpliSafe security system, and speakers throughout the house.
A sliding glass door opens onto a barbecue area overlooking the lawn, raised plant beds and space for a hot tub in the fenced backyard.
The three-car garage has a large 10-foot-wide door to park your RV or boat. The house is ready for solar power system and electric car charging station.
The open house is 1-6 p.m. June 28 at 852 SW Angus Court in Hermiston.
– Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072