A school bus carrying the housing and interior design class from Lavaca High School pulls up to the new house at 204 Honeysuckle Street in Alma, Ark., just before 9 a.m. on Monday (Oct. 17).
Off climbs 14 students ranging from grades 9 to 12 – 13 females, one male. Their first stop is the open garage for a handful – and sometimes armful – of colorful seasonal items and wall decor. Ceramic birds, pumpkins, plants in vases, wall art, all the accents and accessories that make a house a home, all waiting on their arrival for the house’s “staging.” The house is part of the 2016 Greater Fort Smith Association of Home Builders’ Parade of Homes.
It isn’t the average school day, and for custom home builder Melissa Denton, it isn’t the average workday either.
Most of the decorations are supplied by Denton. They are things she’s picked up from garage sales and other locations over the years. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” she tells the students who are curious about how she was able to find so many rustic and colorful designs to complement the interior build and color schemes of the house.
Denton built the home as one of her rare ventures into the spec market. It’s 1,451 square feet on an 8,276-square-foot lot with a list price of $142,000. Most of Denton’s work is on the custom home market, and she admits she likes to keep her clientele limited to about five at a time.
It’s a business she built with husband Jerry, who works at Coca-Cola, leaving the day-to-day duties in her care.
Denton handles “lots of paperwork” and coordinates with subcontractors on multiple projects at once. But as she discusses floor plans and energy efficient ways to build with the LHS students, you get the feeling she may have handled this house by herself. One wouldn’t know spec isn’t her specialty. Her entry in the 2015 Greater Fort Smith Association of Home Builders Parade of Homes won “Best of Show” in the under $225,000 category.
As she readied this year’s entry — the Honeysuckle house, opening Oct. 21 to the public — she began thinking about ways to involve students and show them another side to the construction industry.
“I’ve always staged my houses and thought, ‘I wonder if there is a class at one of these schools that would enjoy learning to do that,’” she says. “The last couple of years I’ve had schools come through, but that was after it was already decorated. So I came up with Lavaca because that’s where I live and my kids went there.”
Denton phoned longtime LHS teacher Jody Wein, who took the idea to Felicia Owen, the school’s principal.
“I talked to Felicia and she said, ‘Yes, that goes right along with your curriculum. It’s perfect. Every bit of it,’” Wein said, adding that what makes it so valuable to her class is “it’s a hands-on thing. We can sit in class and read from the book and watch videos, but unless you’re really doing it, it doesn’t make as much of a difference.”
The students work most of the morning arranging furniture and decorations in a group effort to perfect the look of the home. They question each other a lot, offer opinions on whether an item looks good or whether it should be moved a few inches to the left or right. They observe whether couch placement will interfere with a room’s traffic patterns. They coordinate bathroom towels and arrange decorations by the sink. There are about two hours between arrival and first break. By the end of that span, the students are opening up and have a lot of questions for Denton.
How did you get your start? “My husband had always liked construction, and I had worked for an architect, developer and engineer, so with his interest and my background, we started out with a flooring company. But we loved building, and every time construction was going on, we would just stop and watch.”
How long did this house take to build? “About four months. Smaller homes can take anywhere from three to five months for construction. Larger homes, six months to a year.”
What’s the biggest house you’ve ever built? “About 4,000 square feet.”
What’s your favorite style of home to build? “Hm. Rustic, modern, contemporary? Craftsman! I’d say Craftsman right now. Good question. Did I pass that one?” Denton laughs.
How do you get the supplies? “Different companies will donate,” Denton says, adding that it’s good exposure and most store owners know when the home sells, many of their decorations and furnishings will as well. For 204 Honeysuckle, she adds, Aaron and Tyler Roe of Frank Roe Furniture were “more than willing to help. … They contributed the couches, chairs, and tables, and would have contributed more if I would have asked.”
How long is the process from your first meeting with the customer to the time you’re finished? “That depends on where the client is in their loan, their floor plan, and their ideas. I also keep floor plans they can choose from, but it really depends on the client.”
Other questions and answers: Is it hard to work with your husband? “Not at all.” What is the hardest part of your job? “Keeping everyone happy.” Have you ever lived in any of the homes you’ve built? “I am right now.”
By the end of the Q&A, the students understand why a builder would pour time, money, and resources into building a home that hasn’t sold. They comprehend why furniture stores and other businesses are willing to donate items for free just so a potential homebuyer will see it. Most importantly — at least for a class that bears the name “housing and interior design” — they embrace the impact and importance design and presentation can have on the mind of the buyer.
So while this school day has traded a classroom for a field trip and a cafeteria for a Cracker Barrel, class was very much in session outside the school walls.