Learning by doing: MSU building construction science students get real-world experience with tiny house project

Contact: Sasha Steinberg

George Martin, left, visiting associate professor in Mississippi State’s Building Construction Science program, discusses the wooden tiny house construction project with students Evan Hodges and Collin Manuel during a recent presentation on the Starkville campus. Martin was among faculty and construction professionals who toured the house and provided feedback to the students on their work. (Photo by Megan Bean)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Students in Mississippi State’s Building Construction Science program found completion of a two-semester tiny house construction project a challenging experience, but the lessons learned were worth the work.

Nearly 30 students spent the full academic year working on several projects leading up to the design and construction of steel and wooden house frames.

MSU Assistant Clinical Professor Lee Carson and College of Architecture, Art and Design Dean Jim West guided students as they went through the process of designing, researching and exploring materials and fabrication methods, planning construction, and building every element of the structures. Students also were responsible for creating a comprehensive document explaining the entire design and construction process.

For fabrication, the students were split into two teams of 14 with a hierarchical structure of one project manager—West for the wood building and Carson for the steel building—as well as one superintendent and four foremen, with two or three crew members under each foreman.

During a recent presentation on campus, each student team discussed learning outcomes and challenges regarding their respective building’s foundations, interiors, and structural, wall and roof systems. MSU faculty and local construction professionals toured the houses and provided feedback the students could use for future projects.

The wood building is 8 feet wide by 16 feet long by 13 feet tall with 210 square feet of interior space. This includes loft sleeping space accessible by a ladder. The roof of the building is removable for ease of transportation, and the students built a “pop out” or extension for the shower that expands three feet and also allows for a balcony that reaches four feet out upstairs. Other features are a concrete foundation and floor, wood frame, fiber cement board siding, steel wall panels, vinyl reflective windows, metal roof, cellulose insulation, gypsum board interior walls and a V-joint pine wood ceiling.

MSU junior William H. Young of Madison, a foreman for the wooden tiny house, said the fabrication process challenged him and other crew members to work with unfamiliar materials. He credits the group’s success to its positive team dynamic and willingness to evaluate processes and find creative solutions in the face of obstacles.

“A lot of the things we were doing were pretty new to us, if not completely new to us, so there was a learning curve,” Young said. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned from this project is most of construction isn’t just about following directions, but fixing what is broken while you’re following directions.”

In addition to learning from West and Carson, the students also benefited from the expertise of representatives from West Point-based Graham Roofing and Meridian-based Glass Inc.

“Professor Carson also asked a subcontractor from Cell-Tek to show us how to properly hang drywall,” said sophomore Andrew D. “Drew” Pankratz of Taylorsville, also a foreman for the wooden tiny house. “There’s definitely a technique to it, and he showed us some cool tricks of the trade.”

Students and others stand near the steel and concrete tiny house created as part of a two-semester construction project in MSU’s Building Construction Science program. Part of the College of Architecture, Art and Design, the program is one of only two studio-based construction programs in the U.S. (Photo by Megan Bean)

For the tiny house with a steel frame and concrete foundation, the students had to build a structure that was 10 feet wide, 20 feet long and 13 feet tall, with 320 square feet of interior space including loft sleeping space. Primarily constructed of non-combustible materials, the building features light gauge steel studs, precast concrete wall panels, a glass curtain wall, fiber cement board cladding, steel wall panels, vinyl windows, a metal roof, gypsum board interior walls, plywood upper interior walls and a metal ceiling.

“If you’re trying to design this as a movable building, steel and concrete are not the choice of materials or systems, but I wanted the students to go through the process of having to use those materials because many of them had never done that before,” Carson explained.

Curtis A. “Curt” Wilson, a sophomore from Olive Branch who served as superintendent for the steel and concrete tiny house, said installation of wall panels and insulation was a tough, yet beneficial part of the project.

“Using two-inch insulation made it hard to find the studs and we placed them wrong, so that was the first challenge,” Wilson said. “Fastening the Hardie panels to the wall took two weeks, but it also was a great learning experience because of the difficulties.”

Carson, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from MSU, said the tiny house project provided a “huge learning opportunity” for the students to work together in an “intense, comprehensive environment.”

“We are really proud of these students. They put their sweat, time and heart into this project and have produced an incredible amount of work,” he said. “I believe the strength of what we’re doing in the studio classes is bringing the students’ knowledge base all the way through the design and construction process. They will be able to take a lot of this knowledge forward.”

Part of the College of Architecture, Art and Design, MSU’s Building Construction Science program is one of only two studio-based construction programs in the U.S. Learn more at www.caad.msstate.edu, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @CAADatMSU.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.