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How to build a home: Z-M, Goodhue students build two townhouses for class

Matt McKinney (left) and Nathan Mensink unload a shipment of cabinet parts during construction class on Feb. 27. Students from Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Goodhue are building two townhouses on Highland Circle, near the Zumbrota Golf Club. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
A crew of students from Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Goodhue high schools have been building two townhouses in Zumbrota. The students are taking the construction class taught by Kevin Nelson (top left), who will be retiring after 30 years in the Z-M district this May. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
There's still a lot of work to get done at the student-built Highlands Circle townhomes in Zumbrota, Unfortunately, poor weather and school closings have put the construction class crew a few weeks behind schedule for the March 2-3 open house. However, teacher Kevin Nelson said they'll still be ready for the auction time on March 18, 2019. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
Charlie Gehrke, a junior at Zumbrota-Mazeppa High School, works on a door frame during construction class on Feb. 27. Gehrke's teacher, Kevin Nelson, lets the kids go on their own, offering advice at certain points. Nelson said his crew knows the importance of doing quality work. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

ZUMBROTA — For students taking the construction class at Zumbrota-Mazeppa High School, they're getting a literal hands on learning experience.

The class, which has students from Z-M and Goodhue schools, is building two townhouses in Zumbrota that will be for sale in just a matter of weeks.

This isn't the first time; in fact, the class is 44 years old, starting with Dick Wiebusch.

The current teacher is Kevin Nelson, in his 30th and final year of teaching the class. Nelson said during his tenure they've built 33 homes, either a townhouse or single-family house.

Nelson and his students have done as much as pouring the foundation for most of the homes, saying they stopped a few years ago when he had a hip injury.

They do about everything, Nelson says. Students do duct work, plumping, electrical, painting, just about everything they can do without having a professional license. They don't have a lax inspection process either, getting treated like everyone else, Nelson said.

So putting a group of kids in charge of building two townhouses might seem like a difficult task, but Nelson would push back against that notion, saying the juniors and seniors in the class understand the responsibility and rise to the challenge.

"We try to build a relationship of trust with them," Nelson said. "They have to understand, and I explain very thoroughly to them, that, 'Hey, this is a major challenge and you really don't get a second chance guys, if you screw up and do something stupid — you're out.' It's kind of a no-nonsense approach."

Predominantly, students taking the course have a future interest in a career in the trades or home improvement.

Nathan Mensink and Peyton Liffrig, seniors at Z-M, both hope to work in the trades someday. Mensink said he's look at a career in the electrical field, with Liffrig's focus more toward carpentry.

Whether their future careers actually coincide with the skills they're learning during the construction class, Mensink said this is something they'll be able to use for the rest of their lives.

"Yeah, I think it's just good skills to learn that cost money to pay someone to do it, but if you know how to do it yourself you can save a little money in the future," Mensink said.

The seniors say this year has been tough, with 10 snow days in the district, so the construction process has been delayed some.

Nelson said they were lucky to have such a large crew that when February came around, they were actually ahead of schedule, but now with poor weather they aren't where they hoped they'd be in preparation for the March 2 and 3 open house visits.

The projects are funded by the school district, which can create a unique pressure on Nelson and his class.

"It's kind of scary the school say, 'Here, take $400,000 and educate the kids and then when we're back, we want $450,000 back or whatever it might be.'.... The school has been really supportive of the program," Nelson said. "They're fully behind it."

Make no mistake, the students put in the work, according to Nelson. NHe gets ask if he does all the work, replying that he usually does about "10 percent," but the onus is truly on the students to succeed.

"Yeah, we have to fix some things that aren't done right," Nelson said, "And I guess I try to teach the kids to have respect for what they're doing. Take some pride. Have pride in what you're doing and if it isn't done right, fix it."

The townhouses are for sale and will be a part of an auction March 18. An open house will be from 10 a.m. to noon March 2-3, 2019, for people interested in touring the properties located on Highlands Circle near the Zumbrota Golf Club.

Through his career, Nelson has made a point not to hold his students' hands through the construction process. They won't always have this kind of assistance on the job site, and have to learn on their own, even if that means failing the first time around.

"Most boards can be cut into a shorter piece," Nelson said. "Most nails can be pulled out. .... Some of these kids have grown so much in their outwardness in what they do."

With Nelson's retirement coming in May, his advice for the next instructor is one that all teachers can relate to: patience is key.

"I think that it's real easy to just do it yourself, but that's not what the course is designed to do," Nelson said. "Sometimes it gets really hard to sit back and watch a kid try to pound a nail in and he bends four nails over, and you knew you could've had that done in one or two swats of the hammer. Just be prepared to have patience that they're going to make mistakes."

For future students who may be interested in enrolling, Liffrig said it's terrific "hands-on learning" and that anyone who takes it can learn a lot from the entire process.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

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