How a house became a home

How a house became a home

All it took was two years, 35 high schoolers, one crane, a creative teacher, and one very grateful family.

Just a few weeks before 501 Edith Road in Roxbury was due to become a new home for its owners, Frank Caccavale ’14 surveyed its bare white rooms, noting what still needed to be done. The kitchen had its cabinets and countertops but needed appliances. A bathroom had its tub but needed a toilet and sink. The living room needed baseboard molding. The front entrance needed outdoor stairs.

The house is a raised ranch on a sloping corner lot, and the last time Caccavale was here, he had entered via a stepladder at the front door. But the inside stairs had since been installed from the ground-floor garage, and today he came in for the first time the way the occupants would soon come in, one step nearer the end of what has been the long journey of building his first house. The house is just over 1,000 square feet — three bedrooms, two baths — and every inch of it had risen under his watchful eyes.

“This home was behind our high school for two years,” he says. Caccavale is not a contractor but a teacher in the engineering design and technology department at Roxbury High School, and he and the students in his Structural Design and Fabrication classes built this house together over the course of two years, in partnership with Morris Habitat for Humanity — a sustained lesson in framing, flooring, roofing, wiring, plumbing, insulating, drywalling, painting, and community building. They built one side of it in 2020 and the other side in 2021. In the school parking lot.

And then in May, they watched a crane lift one side of the house onto a truck for the slow, careful 6-mile journey from the high school to Edith Road and then lower it onto a foundation that Morris Habitat volunteers had poured at the site. When the other half of the house arrived, they crossed their fingers that the two would fit together properly.

“Our first half and our second half matched up within three-eighths of an inch,” Caccavale says, a professional level of precision, especially for a structure so large built by students so young.

He stopped to run his hand admiringly along the living room wall. “We picked this house up 15 feet in the air and moved it 6 miles, and the Sheetrock only cracked in six places,” he says. “And the students and I were the first ones in.”

The home’s journey from a parking lot concept to a finished house was guided by TCNJ signposts several years before it traveled those last 6 miles. Chuck Seipp ’01 was the newly arrived assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Roxbury in 2016, when the school district decided to poll the community to find a better use for the 2,500 square feet in the high school that had once been home to the defunct auto shop program but had since been given over to the maintenance department for storage. In response, the space was turned into labs for the robotics program and for a new structural design and fabrication program.

“By the early 2000s, skilled trades were moving exclusively to vo-tech schools, but simultaneously, those schools were also becoming selective,” Seipp says. “Our goal was not only to expose kids to opportunities that were vocational arts in nature but also to give them a great life skill. You’re going to be a homeowner or renter someday. How do you care for the place that you live in?”

As for someone to teach the new structural design and fabrication program, the longtime Roxbury woodworking teacher, fittingly named Paul Wood, suggested Caccavale. At the time, Caccavale was a recent TCNJ grad Wood knew of because they had student taught, 10 years apart, with the same cooperating teacher.

“I said to Frank that these opportunities to create something brand new and fresh are very rare in our business,” says Seipp, who convinced Caccavale to leave his job teaching woodworking and robotics in Bernards Township to launch the Roxbury program.

Caccavale is an Eagle Scout, resourceful and swift — he was just 26 years old when he became executive director of the New Jersey Technology and Engineering Educators Association — and by his second year after taking the job at Roxbury, he had an idea that was notably fresh, and rare. He had volunteered with Morris Habitat, and he wanted to find a way to enlist his students.

“I kept talking to Habitat, asking, ‘How do we do more?’ So the idea came up, and they asked, ‘Can you build a house?’” says Caccavale. Well, why not? He started soliciting support, supplies, and skills from the community — more than $100,000 worth of donated materials and time by the end, he estimated. An architect to design a house that could be built in one place and moved to another? No charge. An excavator to dig the foundation on the overgrown lot that the town supplied? Free. A plumber to show students how to install water lines? Gratis.

“Frank took the ball, ran with it, and we basically tried to keep up with him,” says Blair Schleicher Wilson, CEO of Morris Habitat.

Caccavale is the kind of teacher that TCNJ tries to cultivate in the School of Engineering’s Integrative STEM Education program. “Our major allows students to become creative and think big about anything that they’re working on,” says Manuel Figueroa, department chair, and advisor to Caccavale’s senior design project at TCNJ. “What we try to get our teachers to understand is that everything in our world is designed by humans, and those technological skills are for us to help in our communities, in our homes, and in our towns, and that’s where our teachers are going to have an impact.”

The impact was broad and quick. Caccavale, his students, and their house have been widely featured, from the local newspapers to Fox & Friends on national television. “They really enjoyed swinging hammers. Insulating and drywall were definitely not their favorites,” Caccavale says. “To think there were days when kids would come to school, take calculus, and then would set roof trusses, which is a very high-level industry thing to do, and then they’d go back and have gym and lunch and social studies. That was a normal day for a 17-year-old. That was just what their October looked like at school.”

The class is an honors elective, and fewer than half of the 36 students who took it planned to work in one of the trades they learned. “Every student Frank has isn’t going to become an electrician or a carpenter, but they all know how to change an outlet,” Seipp says. “The number one question kids ask is ‘Why do I have to know this?’ Kids didn’t ask that question in this class because it was self-evident.”

The students, and many of the other volunteers who worked on the house, wrote messages on the parts of the house that were hidden when it was buttoned up. Before shingling a roof that he hoped would stay sealed, one student wrote, “I hope you never read this.” Caccavale compiled a collection of photos of all the messages that he gave to the family who moved in on August 24.

Forty applicant families qualified for the random drawing for the house that was held on May 18, the day before the house was moved from the school. The winner was a family from Orange: Samuel and Senait Tesfaye and their three children, who will attend the Roxbury schools — fourth grade, first grade, and preschool. “I could teach their kids when they get to 11th grade,” Caccavale admits.

Samuel and Senait joined the students at Edith Road to watch the home arrive. “I was all chilled — it didn’t feel like it was real, like that’s going to be my family’s house,” says Senait, who first applied for a Habitat house six years ago. “My kids can’t wait until they have their own backyard where they can be free. We’ve worked so hard only for them.”

“My students knew it was for a family, but being able to really look at them and to say, ‘My name is Nick, and I helped to build your home,’ was really something,” says Caccavale, who plans to build two more homes with his students and Morris Habitat over the next four years. “When they’re older, these students could be driving around with their own kids, and they could pass by this home and say, ‘I built that.’ How neat is that going to be?”

Picture: Bill Cardoni

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