Middle school students think big, build 'tiny'

More than 50 Maryland middle-schools students have been building a house during a summer camp in Annapolis — not a routine task for teens and preteens.

"I came here skeptical," acknowledged JJ Jennings, 13, a rising eighth-grader at the Key School in Annapolis. "Why am I paying to do labor?"

To be fair, the house is a small-scale project — 210 square feet and sitting on trailer in the Key School parking lot.

But that doesn't mean it's a not a big deal. Complete with solar panels and a rainwater filtration system, the compact home is designed to have the smallest possible carbon footprint.

Students have been working in teams to finish the house on a tight schedule. The summer camp — organized by the Key School and SustainaFest, an Annapolis nonprofit that educates the public about sustainability — is just three weeks long.

When the house is finished, volunteers planned to transport it up and down Interstate 95 and display it as an example of what sustainable construction looks like, said George Chmael II, president of SustainaFest. Partners in the project are planning an unveiling at the Key School on Thursday at a ceremony scheduled to include Anne Arundel County Councilman Chris Trumbauer, Key School Upper School Division Head Brian Michaels and SustainaFest officials. Organizers said Gov. Martin O'Malley might attend, though the governor's office could not confirm his schedule.

One morning this past week, students in yellow hard hats surrounded the little house, some carrying lumber, others nailing together a railing for the front steps.

"Yesterday I got to put in a window, and that was a big accomplishment," said Julia Branscombe, 11, a rising sixth-grader at the Key School. She had to hunch down atop scaffolding to nail it in, she said.

The students have received a help and instruction from a team of community volunteers. Rogers Belch, lead carpenter, has years of experience building homes with Habitat for Humanity. He said he's "constantly thinking of how to make [the project] meaningful for the kids," often stopping to explain the construction process and encouraging them to take leadership roles.

The partnership between SustainaFest and the Key School began in January, when middle- and upper-school students watched "Tiny: A Story About Living Small," a documentary about a couple's experience building their own super-small house, and discussed the film's ideas in their classes.

Chmael said his organization "breaks down sustainability into a set of big issues, then gets schools to dive into each of them over the course of a year."

The "tiny house" under construction by campers is sustainable in its materials and design. There will be solar panels on the roof, and the shower will use filtered rainwater. The furniture can be rearranged to make the most of the small space. And the toilet feeds into a composting tank.

Outdoor activities are a part of life at the Key School. Julia said one time her class went hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

"Eventually we got up to this point, and you could see forever," she said. "There were no buildings, nothing to obscure the nature."

The students expressed optimism in the face of increasingly dire warnings from scientists about climate change. A few of the campers said their families had organic vegetable gardens, compost piles and rain barrels.

"I think we're doing a better job with the environment than we have in the past, especially with the new technology," Julia said.

Her generation might be naive, she said, but that could be a good thing.

"We might be able to do more [than adults] since we're not saying, 'The world is going to end.' "

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