Building a Big Dream in a Tiny House: Reflections from a Harbor Freight Fellow
"The act of building this with my own hands would provide me the opportunity to learn valuable skills that I will use for the rest of my life."
~ FIONA NELSON, Big Picture South Burlington
I spent most of my youth searching for an education approach that worked for me. I had some success at various unconventional, outside-the-box schools, but nothing fully clicked. During 8th grade, my family and I decided to try homeschooling; but I still struggled to stay motivated. We needed something else to kickstart my learning.
That’s when I heard about a program called Big Picture South Burlington, which operated out of my public high school in South Burlington, Vermont. I sat down with one of Big Picture’s advisors, Jim Shields, to explore if I was a good fit for their program. The use of the term advisor (as opposed to teacher) immediately sparked my curiosity. I learned that their role was to help learners along their educational journey, not shape it.
We talked about the ways in which Big Picture centers learning around youth and their interests. We discussed logistics, community, and the many opportunities offered through Big Picture, including the chance to take college classes. I liked what I was hearing. When we got to the topic of projects, Jim told me and my mom that I could study anything. I knew what I wanted to do right away.
“Can I build a tiny house?” I asked, excitedly.
In my free time, I had been researching tiny houses and was wistfully dreaming of building one myself. My mother immediately responded with, “No,” and a nervous laugh. But Jim, equally excited as me (and to my mom’s surprise), replied, “Yeah, totally!”
Why a tiny house?
Living in a world that is increasingly challenged by threats to our sustainability, a tiny house offers a simple, environmentally-friendly living space along with financial independence and mobility. Belonging to a generation facing rising costs of living and college tuition, I could be debt-free with a space that is uniquely mine. A space I could decorate with my own flair, complete with mason jars and knick-knacks. And, the act of building this with my own hands would provide me the opportunity to learn valuable skills that I will use for the rest of my life.
My tiny home would have more than enough room to hold my big dreams, and I needed to prove to myself that I could bring to life the idea I had spent years constructing in my head. I also hoped actualizing my dreams would inspire others to chase their own.
The Building Blocks of a Dream
Through Big Picture, I now had the very real opportunity to pursue my passion of researching, planning, and saving funds for this project, while earning high school credit. I eagerly seized this moment and spent nearly three years devoting significant time to figuring out everything I could about building a tiny house.
In late May of 2019, my savings account hit $10,000—enough to make initial purchases for my build. Working two jobs, 20 hours a week for the last four years paid off! My first purchase was a custom-built, 18-foot trailer from Tiny House Basics that cost a little over $4,000. This would be the foundation for my future home. Of course, saving money was only the first hurdle.
I knew this was a huge undertaking, but the complexity of this project suddenly became a lot more obvious when I had to arrange the transport and delivery of my new trailer. After six months and many rounds of negotiation, my trailer traveled across Pennsylvania and New York and was safely delivered to my friend’s backyard. Seeing the trailer sitting there was a huge relief.
Reflecting on what I accomplished up to this point, I certainly knew far more than I did when I began this journey with Big Picture. I had been able to experiment, iterate, and push through failure. However, part of me was still unsettled.
Despite having the foundation of my tiny house ready to go, it was almost like I was still exactly where I was three years ago when this project was just an idea. I still needed to draft blueprints, and I didn’t know how to start the actual process of putting nails to wood. Something needed to happen.
Getting My Hands Dirty
At Big Picture, we follow the Leaving to Learn education philosophy—the belief that youth experience long-lasting, meaningful learning by accessing education opportunities beyond the four walls of our classrooms. This approach to learning reminds us of the great wealth of expertise that exists right in our own backyards, in the hands and hearts of our community members.
When young people are in the real-world, working alongside mentors who are experts in our interests, we thrive. To regain momentum behind my tiny house project, I realized I needed to find construction skill-building experiences that took me beyond my school building.
In December of 2019, I applied for and was accepted into Big Picture Learning’s Harbor Freight Fellowship—a 120-hour apprenticeship program for youth who show significant potential and passion for the traditional and contemporary trades. Harbor Freight Fellows offers learners the freedom to access deep and sustaining relationships with community-based mentors who are experts in their field. They also provide a $1,000 stipend and $250 towards new tools.
As part of my research, I spoke to several architects and general contractors, but most were too busy to help. Thankfully, I connected with our local Habitat for Humanity and scheduled an interview with project manager, Chris Lane. Although Chris and his crew were toward the end of their building projects—focusing on flooring, painting, doors, cabinets, and other finishing details—it was still a perfect opportunity to get the hands-on experience I needed.
Supporting Chris’ team meant being on the jobsite two times a week. Within the first five minutes of being there, I remembered how much I enjoyed building things. Throughout my time at Big Picture, I would do an occasional project that involved building, but I had not done any proper woodwork since my freshman year when I built sets for the school play. Now, I was back in my natural environment, and I loved it.
Pivoting During a Pandemic
Unfortunately, my time with Habitat was cut short when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Vermont. This moment created its own unique challenges and, despite the disruption, opportunities.
With support from Harbor Freight coordinators, Beth White and Charlie Plant, and my advisor, Jim Shields, we quickly pivoted my fellowship plan from logging on-the-job apprenticeship hours with Chris and his team, to receiving virtual support while building my house. I reached out to Chris for advice on purchasing blueprints and continued to meet weekly with Beth, Charlie, and Jim to keep me on track. Learning to be nimble in the face of unforeseen challenges also inspired me to make another strategic change just before my graduation.
When I learned that my dad and step-mom bought a house on five acres of land in southern Maryland, I realized that this would not only be a perfect place to work on a tiny house but also an opportunity to collaborate and connect with my dad. I packed my stuff and headed south, trailer in tow, thinking about all the possibilities yet to come as I made my way to my next destination.
Like any 18-year-old recent high school graduate facing a huge transition, I have questions and doubts, but mainly I am excited and motivated. I don’t think I would feel this way or be in this position without the support of Big Picture. Instead of sitting in a classroom daydreaming about tiny houses, I am actually getting to build one. How many young people can say that? As I look at the shell of my tiny house in my dad’s yard, I reflect on the many things I am grateful for, and perhaps the biggest among them is the lifelong learner I’ve grown into who is steadily building a dream.
*Fiona Nelson is a Big Picture South Burlington graduate who values honesty, critical thinking, and openness to new ideas. They have many interests, including rock climbing and music, but Fiona’s most enduring passion is their commitment to building sustainable housing, specifically tiny houses. After working two jobs since age 14 to fund their own tiny house, Fiona is embarking on the next phase of their journey.
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