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Little house on the campus: AHS grad applying for college shows his mettle with woodwork

When incoming sophomore Brayden Preskenis arrives at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, in addition to taking the usual books, clothes and a computer, he’ll be bringing along something most other students won’t: his own house. That he built himself.

This tiny house is more than just a home on wheels. The five-year process of raising money for and building the 128-square-foot house (with a 3-foot porch) has been long and arduous. But it also has taught the Ashland High School graduate a great deal about the power of persistence, of family and of the generosity of this community in helping him meet his dream.

In 2013, 13-year-old Brayden sat in as his sister, Brielle, interviewed at colleges. He noticed the interviewers often asked the same question: “What sets you apart from everyone else?” It started him thinking. Anyone can have high grades, excel at sports, and volunteer. What would make him different?

His stepmother, Cassie Preskenis, had watched a documentary on the tiny house movement and mentioned it to him. It struck a chord and he decided to build a tiny house, one that would be off-the-grid.

“It was one of my passions and I really love working with my hands,” he says. “But I knew it would also set me apart, it would be a good thing to write my college essay about.”

Coming from a family of teachers, he knew that if he wanted to go to the college of his dreams he’d have to figure out how to pay for it. Living in a tiny house would help him save money. A week later, Brayden went to White City and bought a rusted-out, dilapidated hay trailer for $450 — a steal.

Community support showed up right off the bat. He first went to Hassell Metal Fabrication to see whether they thought it was even feasible to build a tiny house on this old hay trailer. The body looked straight, Tom Hassell said, but it needed more support. “He came back and said he could do it. I said, ‘OK, how much is it?’ ‘$20.’ That doesn’t even cover the cost of the materials, much less the labor. Those two big I-beams made this whole thing possible. Without them there’s no way this trailer could hold that much weight.”

The next stop was Ashland Lumber. Brayden’s father, Jay Preskenis, who is assistant principal at Ashland High School and a former teacher, used to refurbish houses and rent them, so he spent a lot of time at Ashland Lumber and knew the owner. “I went in with a plan that I had drawn up on my way from camping with my parents, with the trailer parked out front,” Brayden says. He asked for the owner, Bob Hodgins, who, curious, came out to look at the trailer. “He was definitely skeptical that a 14-year-old wanted to build a house. But he ended up giving me a spectacular deal: lumber at cost. I’ve probably spent $5,000-$8,000 on lumber, all at a smokin’ price.”

Hodgins remembers when Brayden and Jay first came around. “A lot of kids need a lot of help, and he needed a lot of help, but he was willing to do the work,” he says. “It was fun watching him put it together.”

So Brayden and Jay loaded up the 2x4s in the trailer and parked it in their driveway. Later, the tiny house would be moved down a hill to a field at the side of their property.

Initially, help came mainly from his large extended family, which includes three aunts and two uncles in the area. “One grampa-in-law is an electrician, so he would come over and explain what’s going on with the 12-volt system,” Brayden says. “Another grandpa would tell me what he’s done on his sailboat and how that can relate to this project. Even my grandparents from back East showed up and helped with finish carpentry.”

Every birthday, Brayden would ask his relatives to help in a work party instead of giving him presents. “My birthday is Dec. 15, so it was often pretty cold,” Brayden says. “One year we worked in 6 inches of snow.”

But it didn’t stay with family. Slowly, the story of the plucky kid building a tiny house got out. “My dad and mom (Sheri Preskenis) have been teaching for the past 30 years, so they know the Ashland community, and my uncle teaches in Phoenix. People would hear the last name and recognize it,” he says. “Once in a while I’d post on Facebook: ‘I’m building a tiny house. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but If you have any used gear, used 2x4s, building supplies, I’d love them. If you could give me a deal, that would be fantastic.’”

Then the circle widened. “It was mechanics, metal fabricators, someone who lived in my dad’s old apartment, my father’s students, some people who’d just seen the post on Facebook and wanted to say ‘hi’ and pick up a hammer, just to say that they helped me. The whole town of 28,000 was willing to come together, from giving me discounts on products to coming out and swinging a hammer. It’s been incredible.”

The stove came from his mother’s friend who was getting rid of RV parts. It lay around for four years until he could use it. “I did a lot of hoarding. I put stuff underneath the tiny house, jammed it in my dad’s garage.”

He got materials from Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, Craigslist. “After the community started hearing what I was doing they would often call me up and say, ‘Hey, I have bamboo flooring that I’m ripping out of my apartment.’ That’s what’s installed now.”

Brayden was a beginner, so mistakes were legion. There was the story of the subfloor. “My dad’s friend from Montana wanted to help last August. Dad said there had to be 16 inches between the subflooring and the insulation.” When they finished putting in the subfloor, Jay came out with a tape measure. In some places they’d miscalculated a small amount, but it was enough so that they had to rip it up and start over. “There are mistakes throughout. It’s not perfectly square.”

He estimates that his father has spent 200 to 300 hours working with him, and the process has brought them closer. “My dad and I have always been close, from backpacking to working on the houses he owned, but it was really fun to work on the tiny house together, because I was in control. He would ask, ‘OK, what do you want done?’”

He takes a visitor on a tour. He points out the many windows. “I wanted a lot of natural light, since I’d be living off the grid,” he says. “I have solar panels and 13 windows, including several picture windows, all double-paned and gas-insulated. I got them all for under $400.”

The inside is faced with tongue-and-groove knotty pine. “I wanted a rustic look, like a cabin in the woods. The trim is cedar; the molding, hemlock. Outside is cedar shakes, stained natural brown, like a Cape Cod house.” The metal roof was a big expense, but it has a 50-year warranty — and its own charm: “I love the sound the rain makes on the roof.”

Brayden installed a compostable toilet, a kitchen sink, and a shower. The countertop is butcher block and also has a slab of cherry with natural bark edges. And while he always tried to save money with donated items, the tiny house is not spare or funky. Brayden got artistic with the cabinets, which he faced with a mosaic of strips of different woods: oak, maple, cedar, aspen, purple heart. He built the cabinets in eight semesters of woodshop classes at Ashland High School — the first two as a participant, the others as a teaching assistant.

Brayden was determined to pay for the tiny house himself, which ultimately he did. He’s always worked, starting at age 10 as a babysitter. He worked concessions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for four years. “I always had two or three jobs: handyman, fences, line cook,” he says. “My dad was supportive; he said, you can borrow what you need but you have to pay it off at $150 a month.” The worst time was in his junior year when Brayden was $3,500 in the hole. But by the beginning of senior year, he was in the clear.

Brayden’s hard work — and Honor Roll grades — paid off. He was accepted at all 10 of the private colleges he applied to. His admissions essay was the same for all of them: This tiny house built a community; it helps the environment because it’s completely off the grid and it’s energy-efficient. Ultimately he selected Whitman College, where his sister is going.

When Brayden arrives at Whitman, he will be entering his sophomore year. He lived in the dorms his freshman year — one of the rules at Whitman. Brayden pledged the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, which will let him park the tiny house on its property and live in it. “I will eat food with my friends and get the social aspects of frat life,” he says, “but won’t have to live in a home that’s a little dirty.”

Brayden hasn’t landed on a major yet, but he’s leaning toward being a pediatric nurse — and to that end he interned in Dr. Jani Rollins’ office this summer. Whitman doesn’t have a nursing degree but does have pre-med, so he’s thinking of being a biology/pre-med major.

That’s a hurdle he’ll tackle as he has all of the other decisions he’s made throughout the five-year process of building his tiny house. But he has one more immediate challenge: The trip. Walla Walla is 500 miles away — if you take the freeway, which he is not. He’ll do the trip on back roads going 40 mph and expects it to take four days. Despite a last $650 snag with some ball bearings and new tires, the project is at long last completed.

“It seems like there’s always one more small thing to do, but I am sure I will always find another thing to upgrade or update,” Brayden says. “I feel accomplished now that it is finished.”

Reach Ashland writer Catherine Foster at cathfos@gmail.com.

Photo by Larry Stauth Jr.Brayden Preskenis built his own tiny house over the course of his four years at Ashland High School and freshman year at Whitman College.
Photo by Larry Stauth Jr.Ashland High alum Brayden Preskenis prepares on Tuesday to take his tiny house to Walla Walla before the start of his sophomore year at Whitman College.