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Mix an Adams County high-school vocational program with a philanthropist who has a soft spot for kids and what do you get? 

A plan to build tiny houses, five to start with, with the possibility of creating a community for teens aging out of the child-welfare system.

Several nonprofit groups and business ventures are involved in the ambitious plan. Their members viewed the first of the tiny homes, still in the construction stage, at an open house Oct. 27 at FutureFORWARD Washington Square. It is one of two career and technical education schools operated by Adams 12 Five Star Schools.

Tiny homes usually average about 600 square feet and often are featured on TV shows concerning design and construction.

“They make it look easy, don’t they?” said Aaron Cooper, the construction instructor at Washington Square.

It hasn’t been easy for the school, in particular, because of the coronavirus pandemic impacting in-person education and delaying the delivery of all kinds of construction supplies. But that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of the students.

“It feels good that we’re doing something to help the community and we are learning construction at the same time,” said Jassiel Valencia, a senior at Legacy High School.

He is one of 60 students spread among five classes taking construction this semester. The current focus is on carpentry and electrical tasks. In the spring, students will tackle plumbing and heating and air conditioning skills, Cooper said,

The first tiny house is expected to be completed in March, a deadline that admittedly has made donor Bob Lembke antsy. The businessman and water visionary wishes the process moved faster, but he said he understands the school’s sentiment of making sure the houses are done right.

Lembke is the owner of the 70 Ranch in Weld County, home to a permanent research facility studying water conservation methods. The 70 Ranch has agreed to pay the full $40,000 cost of each of the first tiny homes and might continue support afterward.

The original goal when Lembke signed on as a donor was the more broad theme of “helping the unhoused” in Adams County, but it now is focusing on foster children.

Lembke is also a major donor to CASA — or Court Appointed Special Advocates, who champion abused and neglected children in the pursuit of safe and permanent homes. 

“I’m just a sucker for kids,” Lembke said.

Among those at the open house were Lembke and Shannon Hancock, the director of the Five Star Education Foundation, which supports programs that provide Adams County students with skills needed in today’s job market,

Also present were Lembke, Jenni Grafton, a staffer with Adams County government who is looking at zoning issues for tiny house communities; state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Weld County; and Lindsay Lierman, executive director of CASA for Adams and Broomfield Counties.

“We’re really excited about this project,” Lierman said.

FutureFORWARD Washington Square opened in August 2020. Voters in the district approved a bond election to build the facility because the demand to attend classes at the original career and tech school, FastFORWARD Bollman, was so intense that about 600 students a year were being turned away. 

“To turn away that many students in a year is gut-wrenching,” said Marvin Lewis, principal of Washington Square. “Not all kids go to college. If you want to go to college, awesome. If you want to go to the military, awesome. But if you want to learn a trade and be an electrician, then we want to be able to offer that opportunity.”

The career and vo-tech schools attract all kinds of students.

“We have valedictorians and kids who have struggled to pass a class,” Lewis said.

In addition to construction, Washington Square’s classes include firefighting, diesel mechanics and crime scene investigation. Bollman’s courses include computer science, video production and graphic design.

Angelique Montoya, who graduated from Horizon High School in the spring, said she knew she wanted to be an electrician since she began taking construction classes as a sophomore. She now works for Kenny Electric, a Denver company that assists the class on electrical issues.

Montoya worked on the tiny house when it arrived in March. The first step was installing the walls and other equipment that came with the trailer. Students installed the windows earlier in November.

When the house is complete, Cooper said, it will include a loft bedroom, stovetop, small refrigerator and tiny stackable washer and dryer.

It is too early to tell how the tiny house community will evolve, where it will be located, who it will serve and what group might manage it. But in Adams County, there is plenty of excitement for what’s to come. 

Lynn Bartels worked as a reporter for 35 years, including for the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. She is mostly retired but does some communications consulting, including for Bob Lembke.