A “tiny home” class led by Mammoth High School shop teacher Mike Van Winkle might be reshaping education and community collaboration, and could be one small step towards solving the housing crisis in Mono County.
Van Winkle has pioneered a Tiny House Building class, blending advanced manufacturing techniques with hands-on learning, to provide both valuable skills to students and contribute to the community through sustainable housing solutions.
“The tiny house concept of building from start to finish is the perfect teaching platform,” Van Winkle said. He explained that the project will be auctioned, and the funds from the sale will fund the next tiny home. “We have a self-sustaining program. We aren’t relying on a grant for funds,” he continued.
The first tiny house project was funded two years ago by Mono County through the adult education program that had surplus funds after Covid-19.
Van Winkle then pushed through an agreement between the County and Mammoth Unified School District, ensuring both contribute money, and both use their students to build the projects.
High School students work on the house during the day, and adult education classes take over in the evening. The tiny house project began two years ago in the high school welding class where students built and fabricated the entire 16′ x 8′ trailer the tiny house sits on.
“By the time we get done, it should look something like this,” Van Winkle said, pointing to a rendering of a small house posted on the classroom whiteboard. The build kit costs less than $21,000 for the whole house. Van Winkle said that with an experienced crew of four, you could assemble the whole kit in three days.
Van Winkle’s vision is to have the space as a collaborative shop between the Mono County Office of Education, Adult Education, and high school students. The ultimate goal is to create a self-sustaining program where the funds generated from selling each tiny house finance the next one.
“We’re not building traditional housing. We are using a really high-performance building technique called Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS), which allows us to end up with energy efficiency that is far higher than most of our homes that we currently live in,” Van Winkle explained.
One of the reasons the project is accessible to both veteran builders and high school students alike is because of the building technique they are using.
“He did a lot of research on it before he brought this project to light. It was really cool to see how passionate he was,” said Hope Reeves, a former student of Van Winkle and tiny house class participant. Reeves took the class with her mother Mellissa Reeves because she is interested in traveling and living in a redone van or bus. “Once I found out that we were learning how to build a tiny house, and then learning it was on wheels, it just felt perfect,” she said.
Reeves spoke of the transformative experience of going from learning to hands-on doing. “After a couple of days of regular school learning … we got to go get our hands dirty. Some people were experienced; most of us were not, though,” she said.
In a way, this Tiny House project aligns with the Town ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) initiative. Van Winkle agreed. “For me as a builder, this has been part of the overall picture. We can coordinate with our county and building departments to make homes that are smaller but allow us to build them to high-performance standards.”
A little proof of concept to Van Winkle’s vision: Just last month there was an article published in The Colorado Sun about high schoolers in Aspen who are building tiny homes for educators in an attempt to make a dent in the housing crisis that has prevented many school staff from living in the places they work, including the Eastern Sierra.
About 35% of Aspen School District’s 280 staff members live in housing owned by the district, and they anticipate in the next decade a plan will have to be made to accommodate all employees.
The student-built tiny homes are just 200 square feet, and they aim to address the housing crisis in the short term. A clean, dry, warm place for educators to stay is the Colorado District’s goal, but resources limit the number of units that can realistically be constructed.
Van Winkle sees this initiative as a model for the future. “I think we could do two [tiny homes] a year if we got this thing down,” he states. The success of a similar program in Colorado demonstrates the broader potential impact of such initiatives.
“Whatever state it is in, we want to be able to get this thing in the Fourth of July Parade,” Van Winkle said. Once the shell is done, the phase two class will continue in the Spring with doors and windows, making it air and water tight. Phase three will be the roofing, siding, trim, and everything else. The last phase will consist of the interior, plumbing, electrical, cabinets, and furniture.
A Numeric Controlled Router (CNC) was also acquired by the District as part of a modernization bond/grant. Describing the CNC Router as “absolutely state of the art,” Van Winkle acknowledged some design challenges in its acquisition, as the machine is currently sitting outside at Mammoth High School (as of November 14), unable to fit through the doors. “As you can see, step one is to get it through the door,” he said, chuckling. He explained two years ago when the CNC router was ordered, the doors to the shop were big enough, but recent construction had other plans.
“The whole controlled environment gives us year-round building opportunities, but it became a little more complicated when we couldn’t have a taller roll-up door,” Van Winkle said. However, he noted that it was worth the struggle and, “There are very few high schools in the United States that have this level of advanced manufacturing.”