HERMISTON — While most students were learning remotely this school year, a half dozen Hermiston High School students rolled up their sleeves and traded textbooks for tools to build a house.

“Where others did not have school, I had class everyday,” said Curt Berger, the program coordinator with Columbia Basin Student Homes. “That’s why this house is done.”

On Tuesday, June 29, Berger handed over the keys to the latest home in the Hermiston School District’s Fieldstone subdivision on Southwest Angus Court to Loy and Mike Stratton, marking the end of the year-long student-built construction project.

The Strattons, who are moving to Hermiston from Pendleton to be closer to family, said they loved working with the students and developing some of the final touches.

“I was very excited,” said Loy Stratton. “I love the great room — I love to cook so everyone will be with me there.”

Loy Stratton said she worked closely with former student builder Rylee Albert to nail down final details, such as light fixtures.

“They had most of it picked out already,” she said.

Albert took part in constructing one of the earlier Columbia Basin Student Homes and came back this year to help with design decisions and to mentor students.

“It’s been really neat being able to help people learn it because it’s such a useful skill,” she said.

Berger said he loves to get as much help from outside contractors and other mentors for students as possible to help them learn through the process.

“It’s lots of fun for us because we’re not just turning in a paper or doing an assignment — we’re building a for-real product that we’re going to sell,” said Berger.

Students worked throughout the year to see the 2,232-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2½-bathroom home from foundation to its recent sale for just under $450,000.

The home features high-end finishes, such as speakers, a central vacuum system, an oversized refrigerator and hidden pantry. The students also work with Energy Trust of Oregon and its partners to ensure the home exceeds codes for energy efficiency.

Todd Blackman, an outreach specialist with EPS New Construction, said the home tested 18% above energy code in insulation, air sealing and appliances.

“A lot of people think they build an efficient home,” he said. “But unless you test it and build it right you don’t know.”

Berger said students have their hands on all aspects of the construction process, from foundation to framing to the finishing touches.

“If we don’t do something we see it done and they get to work with the contractors throughout the process,” said Berger.

Saul Cadenas was among those who took park in this year’s project. He described the build as an a positive learning experience. He said prior to the home construction he’d worked on little projects but never imagined building a home.

“It was something new that I really enjoyed doing,” he said. “I learned a lot through the process.”

Cadenas said he learned how to read blueprints and apply them to a construction process, and the class ultimately inspired him to want to build his own home someday.

“It gave me more motivation to further my career and be able to get to building a home,” he said. “Take that class, it’s definitely worth it.”

In 2013, the district received a $372,674 Career Technical Education grant and joined forces with the Northeast Oregon Homebuilders Association to train high school students in residential construction through the Columbia Basin Student Homebuilders program. Each year the district uses the sale of the home to fund the home for the upcoming year.

This year’s program only was open to Hermiston High School students due to COVID-19 restrictions, though a traditional year would be open to high school students from schools throughout the Columbia Basin, said Berger.

In addition to construction, Hermiston High students handle the architectural design and landscaping of the homes.

Bryson Bonnifer said it was a “pretty cool” experience to help assemble the framing and other aspects of the house.

“I learned everything really, it was interesting,” he said. “I really enjoyed climbing in the trusses and putting studs in.”

Bonnifer said the experience allowed him to receive a scholarship from Columbia Basin Student Homes, and he will continue to pursue an interest in construction, adding that the experience was unlike any other.

“I just toured the finished house,” Bonnifer said, “and it was pretty incredible.”

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Multimedia Journalist

Ben Lonergan is a photojournalist covering Umatilla and Morrow counties for the East Oregonian. Contact him at blonergan@eastoregonian.com.

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