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Monterey County Weekly: Rancho Cielo Construction Students Set to Compete in an International Sustainability Competition

Monterey County Weekly: Rancho Cielo Construction Students Set to Compete in an International Sustainability Competition

June 15, 2023
By Pam Marino

In every Cinderella story there is tension: Will the hero rise from the ashes and win it all? Rancho Cielo construction students and their mentors are living that story every day between now and October. The Rancho Cielo Construction Academy was selected for this year’s inaugural Orange County Sustainability Decathlon, an international home building competition that attracts teams of students from top universities. It’s the first time a vocational school has been selected to participate. 

The young adult students, between ages 16-24 – most coming from low-income neighborhoods and some of whom were diverted from jail time or didn’t graduate from high school – have in a sense already won. As one of 15 teams chosen to compete it comes with a $100,000 grant toward construction of the modular home, which the academy has dubbed Nexus 01.
“We think they’re the greatest story,” says Fred Smoller, the decathlon’s CEO, on why they chose Rancho Cielo’s team. While the competition has a sustainability focus, workforce development is also crucial for the future of the industry, Smoller says.
What followed after receiving the grant last year was a fundraising effort led by Rancho Cielo founder John Phillips to raise an additional $400,000 in cash and materials to build the two-story, 750-foot unit. It was designed by architect and tiny house expert Thomas Rettenwender of EcoLogic Architects, who serves on the academy’s construction advisory committee and suggested they enter the competition.
“We have not made it easy on ourselves. We’ve been very ambitious when it comes to design,” says Rettenwender. “It’s quite elaborate, carefully designed with all the bells and whistles with all the latest in sustainable building materials.”
The Nexus 01 team was provided with high-end sustainable construction products donated by local companies like Hayward Lumber, Scudder Roofing and Solar, among others, and are being mentored by experts in the building trades.
The team must fully construct the house on campus in Salinas then take it apart to be trucked in pieces to the Orange County Fair and Event Center in September. A team of 12 students and their instructors will spend more than 30 days in Orange County, reconstructing the house in time for the competition that begins Oct. 5, during which they’ll show it off to judges and the public, complete with a marketing plan for potential buyers.
While marketing is a new challenge for the Rancho Cielo students, the team isn’t worried about construction. “We have a leg up on the design and construction piece,” says Joseph DeRuosi Jr., Rancho Cielo’s director of College & Career Transitions. “[The college students] have the challenge to build, where our students build every day.”
When the competition is over, students will disassemble the house and it will return to Rancho Cielo to become part of a small village of homes that will serve as staff housing. The plan is to construct and sell more modular units (, all while teaching students skills they can use in future careers, a key part of Rancho Cielo’s mission.
The public has an opportunity to see the team’s progress at an open house, 4:30-6:30pm, Tuesday, June 20 at Rancho Cielo, 710 Old Stage Road, Salinas.

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