Student Home Building Case Study #2 – unCommon Construction/Exploration High School

Exploration High School – unCommon Construction


The following information was gathered during an on-site visit to Exploration High School during October, 2023. Participants included Spencer Grant of unCommon Construction,  Alycia Monserrate of Exploration High School, and three Exploration High School students.

  1. What background/work experience prepared you to teach/run this program?

Spencer Grant: “I tinkered and built a lot of things while growing up.  I did service trips around state of Mn, painting, landscaping, in high school.  I was exposed to emergency home repair. Church community 1 week during summer.  Grew up in SW Mpls, graduated from St. Thomas, degree in psychology.”

“Since 2007,  I have had some form of employment with some form of homebuilding and nonprofit.  My college summers were in rural Appalachia doing emergency home repair on the Appalachia Service Project.  Then I was with Americorps. I spent time working with  the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Louisiana.  Habit hired me and I spent 6 years as a site supervisor.  From there, I helped found and launch unCommon in New Orleans, first as a programs manager and then as site lead. I spent 10 years in Louisiana.”

“I left UnCommon in Louisiana in 2018. It  was an amazing program. .  In my heart, I felt it should be available in every city, and stayed connected with founder.  I asked that if opportunity to test expansion comes up, I’d like to be involved.”

“Then I returned to Minnesota to work in a weatherization program. I did this for 4 years with support from a Dept of Energy funded program.   Did energy audits, recommendation actions to be taken.  I learned emergency home repair and best practices of working with existing structures.

unCommon Construction  secured a micro-grant from the VELA Education Fund.  This  let us test whether we can engage with students and build homes.  We built three little free libraries.   unCommon was part of Stand Together Foundation  and Curry Foundation that  helped support expansion.   They provided enough funding for a site director in Mpls to test assumptions and operations to be able to deliver program.  Nationally, unCommon Construction has been the subject of an article in a national magazine devoted to the construction industry.  It also was a finalist, winning a substantial cash award, in the 2022 national YASS Prize competition.

Spencer Grant – photo provided by Mr. Grant

This tiny house (currently on Exploration High school Campus) is the first one we built.   We began in fall 2022 just with Exploration High School.  In spring 2023, we added Minnesota Internship Center & Henry High School (Community Connection Academy).  This 2023-24 school year, more schools are joining: Mn Transitions, and Venture Academy.  I became connected with Henry via a  former TFA person operating the CCA at Henry. We anticipate that work will be completed by the end of October, 2023.



2. What are examples of partnerships that have helped make the homes?

We have informal partnerships with the industry around building.  Architects have allowed students to tour, and did a neighborhood charette in which students were able to participate.  This is MSR design architects.  We toured a multi-unit retirement community, arranged by the Graystone founder. The Electrical Association has talked with students about careers.  Zip  contributed tape and rollers and sent a  rep to show how to properly install  “sheathing” materials & tape.

3.. What advice would you give to other people considering creating a program to teach construction skills as they build for low income families?  Create solid partnerships because it takes a community of support.  Make sure that you have the right staff in the school to support student population you’re working with.  Share with as many people as you can because it’s important .    Engage with a larger network to help students make connections.  Include team building and communication skills.

Inside – nearly finished as of Oct 2023


  1. What that you’ve done would you strongly encourage others to do?

Stay student centered and listen to the industry to bridge needs. Doing this work is pointless if we aren’t preparing students to rise to the expectations and needs of the industry. The work also won’t land if there isn’t a tangible relevance to the students that engage with your programming, seek their feedback to make sure you are bringing them value with your efforts.

Team who completed the first house

(Chavi, Ayden and Gabe, all up top; Spencer and Mimi, middle; and Rey, uCC Staff, bottom right. Photo from Spencer Grant

  1. Are there any mistakes or unexpected negative outcomes that if possible, people should avoid?

Avoid mission drift by knowing what you are attempting to do and do it with intention. Also, don’t get caught up in competing against other programs, there is a big enough need for real world learning experiences that trying to box out other programs doesn’t help the collective effort. There is more than enough need for programs to exist and support other efforts.


  1. Recognizing it varies from home to home, what are the approximate budgets for the homebuilding projects?

Grant reports: “The tiny house was about $45,000 in materials, though we bought everything new and custom – it also has a solar pv system. If you were frugal and bought things reused or had things donated, it can be reduced.  I’ve seen budgets between $10k and $50k. With a staffing budget, $100k for a tiny house is about right. For a residential new build, $400k – $500k is a benchmark to build and operate programming that supports staff and students.”


  1. Anything else you’d like educators/community members to know that we did not ask?

“You can’t build on a residential site with people under age 18.  You can do this via YouthBuild.  The Minnesota Dept of Labor amd Industry won’t sign an exemption.    Existing CTE (Career Technical Education) schools can do this.  Some CTE teachers are fed up with ‘a mess of weeds’ (in terms of regulations).   Students enrolled have to meet certain demographic characteristics.    Perhaps OSHA and a neutral party can vet organizations such as unCommon Construction.


  1. Student comments:

 Light (17) “I’m planning on going into early childhood education.  I learned some things that  I can use in home repair.   One of the really good skills I learned is that construction seems hard, but when you actually try, it’s really easy. A lot of kids don’t think they can do certain stuff, but you can do something great.    With the help of Spencer, I didn’t give up even when I hit my hand with a hammer. (Spencer noted that there is a DOL requirement – no electrical equipment can be used by students at this age.)    We really worked on communication skills.”

Light working on the house (photo from Spencer Grant)

Emmanuel, 17:  ” In general, we learned life skills, teamwork and career paths…something to do after high school.   I want to be a barber.”

Marquis, 17   One thing that I learned that’s useful is team bonding skills. You have to be good at communicating.  That’s how you get things done fast.  Working in the cold was not fun.  It’s much better when we completed the frame (and worked inside) I’m chill.



Two of the Exploration High School Students who worked on the tiny house

(Photo by Joe Nathan)


Alycia Monserrate (Exploration Staff)  This project helped students look forward. Some of the students who excelled in this project had struggled to get to school.  This got them motivation.  It really helped them to show up and be present.   One of the students participating in the project has continued to build things.  We leveraged a position offer  for him with unCommon. He just got accepted into Urban Boatbuilders. He’s now being paid to build boats.  We really appreciated relationship with UnCommon.


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