Merrimack teen helps build houses, wins Habitat award

Shannara “Shea” Smith, of Merrimack, is building a bright future for herself and others, both figuratively and literally.

She has volunteered extensively with Habitat for Humanity and is one of two women who are seniors in the Building Construction Technology program at Manchester Community College. She has taken an accelerated course load so she will graduate this spring, and already has a plan in place to open her own construction business right away. Oh, and she just turned 19 on Jan. 10.

Smith became interested in architecture and construction at a young age: Her grandmother, Bonny Smith, ran CAD Smith Studios, designing and selling blueprints over the Internet, for more than 20 years.

“I always loved throwing things together,” Smith said. “My grandmother was an architect/designer so I grew up with design and shipping prints. I like to build and I like fiddling with design on the computer.”

Smith’s mother, Ishanna Smith, spoke about what an inspiration Bonny has been to the family.

“My mother worked as a CAD designer back when women were not in the field,” she said. “She had rheumatoid arthritis and was severely walking disabled. Because of her disabilities, she had to fight to be in the field. When she couldn’t get hired, she opened her own Internet business. I helped out with the business for years until Shea turned 16 and could work. She was very influential to Shea and that’s why she really got involved in building. She was a strong woman.”

The family hoped that Smith would eventually take over the business, but after several bouts of cancer, her grandmother died last summer, and the business has been temporarily suspended.

Smith attended public school in Merrimack through the end of middle school and was then homeschooled. She still participated in activities like band and color guard, but the change gave her the freedom she needed for hands-on construction experience and to study design and topics relevant to her career choice.

As soon as she was old enough, in addition to helping with her grandmother’s business during her illness, she began volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Among the projects she worked on is a three-story multi-family house on Hosley Street in Manchester that remained vacant after a fire several years ago until the city sold it to Habitat.

“We gutted it except for the core of the frame and then rebuilt it,” she said. “We put on a new roof, siding, windows, did the framing. Each unit will be two bedrooms, and three low-income families will end up owning their own unit.”

She also worked on a two-bay garage near the south end of Elm Street in Manchester, which was turned into a facility for homeless veterans and has helped build parade floats.

Last year, she and her friend, Kate Poirier, were honored as recipients of the President’s Service award for the more than 200 hours they each have volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. Poirier is a 2013 graduate of Merrimack High School and is studying Environmental Science at Plymouth State College. The two received their certificates, signed by President Barack Obama, at the organization’s annual dinner.

While still in high school, Smith and Poirier organized a group called TREE GIRLS, Teens Responding to the Environment and Economy with Goals of Independence, Resilience, and Living Sustainably. The two worked to inspire other teens to get involved with Habitat for Humanity to help others get safe affordable housing. They studied and promoted interest in the Tiny House movement, which began out west in Colorado and Arizona, and involves a minimalist approach to structures and avoiding debt.

“You use an 8-by-18 (foot) flatbed trailer as a foundation, build a house on it and just park it,” she explained. “It’s about living within your means.”

The houses are called Tumbleweeds, because they have roots but are still mobile. They use two-by-four construction, are heated and insulated, and are typically one bedroom with a twin bed or a loft for a queen-sized bed. The trailer-based houses range from 117- to 172-square-feet, with stationary cottages ranging from 261- to 884-square-feet.

After completing high school, Smith enrolled at Manchester Community College and has taken courses throughout the summer and breaks so she could finish her associate’s degree this spring. She has her own tool belt and various tools, but said she appreciates having access to larger, more expensive tools like circular saws owned by the school.

She is one of 26 students – 22 men and four women – currently building a house on Straw Road in Manchester, the result of a unique partnership between MCC, St. Mary’s Bank, Milford Lumber and Duffley Development Corporation.

The house is the first in an eight-home subdivision being built by students under the supervision of their professors, with Duffley Corporation to complete the interior finish work, including electrical and plumbing. Each house will be sold on the open market, with the proceeds from one sale funding the next building.

The construction trades students are divided into two groups, and each group spends time in classes and one full day working on the site.

“I’ve learned all sorts of stuff,” Smith said. “New tricks like putting blocks under then hammer to pull nails out easier. I’ve struggled with roofing – I find it difficult – but it’s been pretty fun. The guys are cool, like a bunch of brothers.”

Students were busy at work while the press was there for a December media conference, despite a few snow flurries in the air.

Once she completes her degree in the spring, Smith intends to open her own business building and selling Tumbleweeds. Design plans for the houses are available on their website, Customers can purchase just the plans, the plans and a complete kit to assemble, or a home that’s already built.

Although she hasn’t yet built a Tumbleweed, Smith has already purchased the plans for the 8-by-18-foot Cypress model, and is saving money to buy the building materials.

“I want to build one to live in first,” she said. “Then I can show people how big it is. People hear it’s 8-by-18 and think it’s a closet, but once you get inside it, it is actually a comfortable size,” she said.