Tiny houses, huge opportunity: Baltimore’s Civic Works trains young adults in construction

Three years ago, the only experience James Knight had in construction was building basketball hoops out of crates in his East Baltimore neighborhood.

Yet this summer, the assistant construction supervisor for Civic Works found himself cutting space for a front door and hanging windows on a 154-square-foot house perched on a metal trailer — and then teaching other young men and women how to do the same.


“It’s just like building a house from the ground up,” Knight, 25, says as he surveys his team’s progress. “The hardest part will be the metal roof because of its angle. That’s one of the last steps.”

This tiny house is the latest addition to the nonprofit’s “Tiny Homes” program — a workforce development and job training initiative designed to inspire city residents and businesses to become more energy-efficient and to teach young adults in Baltimore between the ages of 18 and 24 construction skills, green technology and how to build sustainable, affordable housing.


“It provides a wonderful training opportunity for our young people,” says Dion Wright, Civic Works’ deputy executive director. “It is essentially building a tiny house, so they receive all of the skills that would be necessary to transition successfully to a career pathway in the construction industry.”

Supporters say once completed, the tiny houses could provide housing solutions for the city’s low-income or homeless residents. But city zoning laws have posed challenges to making tiny house living a reality.

Ambassador for tiny homes

Nationally, interest in tiny houses has increased in recent years. Cities like Detroit have tiny home communities built for low-income residents, and television shows like “Tiny House Nation” feature the structures. According to a recent National Association of Home Builders survey, more than half of Americans would consider living in a home that’s less than 600 square feet. Millennials are especially interested, with 63 percent saying they would consider it.

Civic Works leaders say the idea for its tiny house program began about five years ago when a local nonprofit leader purchased his own tiny home. He encouraged Civic Works to build at least one tiny house as a model for sustainable living. Around the same time, Alice Kennedy, then-sustainability coordinator for the city, began receiving phone calls from people wanting to know more about the structures’ permitting and zoning process.

Given Civic Works is always looking for new and innovative ways to create job training for city residents, it made sense to work together, Kennedy says.

Civic Works produced its first tiny home, the “Clifton,” in 2016 as part of the federal YouthBuild program, which provides job training for at-risk youth. Civic Works trainees and staff built the 200-square-foot house out of recycled materials like cork, bamboo and pine. It included a tankless water heater and solar panels and became a mobile energy education center for the city, highlighting sustainability and energy conservation.

“We were able to support YouthBuild and get that first model up and running to serve these dual purposes, to act as an ambassador for tiny homes and the mobile energy education center, which is fantastic,” Kennedy says.

In 2017, Civic Works launched its full Tiny Homes program.

Using federal grant money, the program provides academic and instruction for students wanting to earn a GED. Students also learn workplace and social skills, like problem solving, teamwork and business management. About 80 percent of Civic Works’ YouthBuild participants did not finish high school.

“It is essentially building a tiny house, so they receive all of the skills that would be necessary to transition successfully to a career pathway in the construction industry.”

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“Being in the program, we learn a lot about how to operate in a workplace and how to be mature and professional,” says Imari Prout, 23, a Baltimore resident who started with YouthBuild in June. “I get to learn these things, have mentors who can teach me, show me the ropes and how things work inside the workplace. And how to make those connections.”

Construction leaders like Knight and Rodney Payne, Civic Works’ director of construction services, teach students everything from how to use power tools and hang drywall to how to install carpet and appliances. After about three weeks, students become Sherwin Williams Certified Painters and earn their Home Builders Institute Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training Certifications. Then, they spend the next few weeks making improvements at local businesses and building one of five tiny house models. Between four and eight students can work on a house at one time. Houses take from two to four months to complete and cost between $50,000 and $70,000.

“The trailer is the most expensive part of the house,” Payne says.


“The Roving” — the tiny house Knight and trainees worked on this summer — is the second one produced by Civic Works and will include a cedar porch, lofted bedroom with room for a full-sized bed, shower, composting toilet, electric cooktop, built-in kitchen table and an energy-efficient refrigerator.

“It’s everything in a miniaturized version,” Wright says. “If you think of a small studio in New York and how you are efficient in using space, that’s essentially what this is. There’s nooks and crannies where you can store everything that you need to … and there’s a lot of flexibility in how they’re constructed.”

Zoning challenges

Still, city zoning laws can cramp the tiny house lifestyle. Most tiny houses are built on top of trailers to make transportation easier, but city zoning laws prevent tiny houses on wheels. That means even if people own a lot, they cannot park their tiny house there and live in it, says Kennedy, who is now deputy commission of homeownership and housing preservation in the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Instead, people can build a tiny home on top of a concrete slab, she says.

“You own the land, you have a design that meets the building code requirements, you obtain the permits, you build the home to code through the process, then you will have a tiny home in Baltimore City built on a concrete slab foundation and can start living your tiny home dream,” she says.

The city has also worked with tiny house advocates to modify designs so they meet code, including changing where a bathroom door opens and hallway widths, Kennedy says. Within the next year, the city expects to adopt a tiny home amendment to the international building code, which would make the entire process easier for architects and designers, Kennedy says.

“We have a lack of affordable housing in the city, and tiny homes or smaller homes provide an opportunity to create affordable housing for people who are in need,” she says.

Interested homebuyers can purchase tiny houses directly from Civic Works or contact the nonprofit for guidance on construction.

While the Roving is only Civic Works’ second tiny house, the overall program has grown since its inception. This year, the number of trainees enrolled will double to 60, says Candice Blackwell, Civic Works’ director of education programs and YouthBuild. About 80 percent of trainees go on to find employment with businesses like Habitat for Humanity and apartment complexes or start their own businesses after graduating.


“I think a lot of the draw to the tiny house system is that it’s a project [students] can be proud of, that they can see themselves participate in and can see it completed,” she says. “I’m proud of the work that we’re doing here, and I’m proud of the young people we’re engaging. The work we are doing is transformational and, in many ways, saving lives.”


Lives like Knight’s, who joined Civic Works in 2016 as a trainee. The nonprofit promoted him to assistant construction supervisor after he completed more than 2,000 hours of training, beginning with the YouthBuild program.

Like many of the young men and women he now mentors, he grew up poor in East Baltimore and was “falling victim” to his environment, he says.

“If they hadn’t put me in the program, we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now,” Knight says. “I’d probably be on a news channel, in a grave or in an obituary.”

Today, he is thriving in his position and takes pride in being an example for others.

“Where I came from, there’s more stuff that can knock you down than build you up,” he says. “Little boys like me, we used to dream of being a supervisor. Now I’m in a position now to make it believable for them.”

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