Tiny House program at Toppa Joppa making progress

Posted: 2/16/2017

Volunteers finish construction on one of the "Tiny Houses" at Toppa Joppa in early February. (Photo/Molly Williamson)

By Molly Williamson

A group of volunteers with professional experience descended on Toppa Joppa, the site of Glenmary’s Group Volunteer Program, in early February to help finish construction on the site’s existing two tiny houses and to prepare the program for the influx of volunteers coming in March for Spring Break.

A team of carpenters led by Eddie Biehn, who owns Woodwrights Inc. in Burlington, Wis., arrived on Feb. 5. Eddie is a former long-term volunteer at The Farm, the former Glenmary Group Volunteer Program site in Vanceburg, Ky.

“This is my way of giving back,” Eddie said. “Glenmary has done so much for me in my life. This is about giving thanks to them.”

The group repaired the rotting porch roof on the larger main housing structure, built a new back staircase for the building and helped clean out the garage. The carpenters then went to work finishing the existing two tiny houses on site, and started construction two new tiny homes.

“It does not take much when you have a group of guys with experience,” said Kevin Snyder, who works with Eddie at Woodwrights. “It goes pretty quick. If they know what they are doing, you can just let them go.”

In 2016, Glenmary purchased two manufactured housing units that were essentially a shell of a mobile home. Glenmary launched a crowdfunding site in the fall to offset the cost of buying the homes and building future homes. It raised $6,000 between the $3,580 in donations from the page and private donations earmarked for the volunteer program.

Constructing new tiny homes from the ground up will be much cheaper, said Brother Joe Steen, a former member of the Brothers Building Crew who is assigned to Grainger and Union counties and assists Toppa Joppa on many building projects.

“They will be cheaper and better insulated,” Brother Joe said. “They are very basic structures, just one room with a bathroom. They are not compartmentalized. They do not have a kitchen, so we should be way under $10,000 per house.”

The tiny homes will allow Toppa Joppa to grow. Currently, the main housing structure can sleep up to 31 volunteers, both long- and short-term. The tiny houses can accommodate bunk beds, because they have an open floor plan. Right now, the plan is to turn one tiny home into an office for Joe Grosek, volunteer director for Toppa Joppa, because it is too far from sewer lines and cannot support a bathroom, and one into a home for the mountain managers, or long-term volunteers who supervise and guide the temporary groups of high school and college students.

Eventually, volunteer director Joe Grosek hopes to construct five to six tiny homes, one of which will be completely “off the grid” with solar power and a compostable toilet.

Toppa Joppa is so popular that it turns groups away, especially in the summer and during school breaks, or refers the groups to other volunteer locations. The long-term goal is to host more groups and to house them in the tiny houses.

Should Glenmary ever decide to move or sell the Toppa Joppa property, the tiny houses will be mobile. Glenmary will be able to transport the homes to the next Group Volunteer Program location.

In fall 2016 and winter 2017, groups of high school and college volunteers built a frame for each manufactured home so future groups could install insulation in the walls and ceiling. Each unit is now double insulated to provide extra warmth.

Throughout the week in February, Mountain Manager Gina Maslanka and Pam Mitchell, a parishioner at Eddie’s church in Wisconsin, insulated the homes, cutting and layering insulation in the walls, and shoving pieces into crevices to protect the cold from seeping into the homes.

The carpenters helped Brother Joe build the stalls for a toilet, shower and sink for one unit and finished the framing, installed a space heater/air conditioner in both units, built a porch for one unit and reattached the porch to the other unit, because it was not level with the entryway or flush with the building. Brother Joe handled all of the electrical and plumbing work.

“It is quite exciting,” said Bill Peterson, a contractor who works with Eddie and attends his church. “We all like doing this, and to do it for the Lord is awesome.”

By Feb. 7, the carpenters began digging the pier foundations for two new tiny homes. Working without a plan, they said the 10’ x 20’ structure was quite simplistic, so it was a fairly easy job. By Feb. 8, they had finished the base of the two homes and had begun laying the plywood platform for the floor.

“We want to make sure that everything is flat, level and the dimensions are right so that the next group that comes in can immediately begin working,” Bill said.

By Feb. 10, Eddie and his crew had built the walls for the two new homes. Joe Grosek, volunteer director for Toppa Joppa, wanted to leave that task for the Spring Break volunteers, because he will have four groups for four consecutive weeks, mostly dedicated to working on the homes.

Dave Mott, president of Cincinnati Drywall and husband of Glenmary’s projects coordinator for mission education and ministry Jodi Mott, and his friend Joe Grote arrived Feb. 8 and began installing drywall in the two houses to form the walls and ceiling. By the end of the week, Dave and Joe Grote had finished drywalling and mudding the two existing structures, and Jodi and three members of Northern Kentucky University’s branch of Theta Phi Alpha began painting the exterior of the one house.

“I had no expectations coming down here, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” Joe Grote said. “We all have the same heart for the work and there have been no egos. I can really feel the Holy Spirit working here. It got into our hearts and brought us here.”

Joe Grote, who is studying in the lay pastoral ministry program at the Athenaeum of Ohio, has been on many service mission trips, but said he liked experiencing a working mission weekend. Not only did he enjoy seeing a finished product at the end of his trip, but he liked the quiet and being outside, “hearing only the birds and a few hammers.”

Joe Grosek never expected the group to do as much as it did. He knew Dave and Joe Grote could finish the drywall, but he was surprised by the amount of work Eddie’s crew accomplished in such a short time frame.

“It has been super helpful and been really fun this week,” Joe Grosek said. “I have basically been their gopher. In this job, there is a lot of training involved when we are doing construction. With these guys, I have not had to watch their every step, because they know what they are doing. We are way ahead of schedule.”