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Airdrie House and Home: McKee Homes builds futures with innovative program

Entering its ninth year in September, Building Futures integrates curriculum requirements with real-world applications as students simultaneously build a home from the ground up in conjunction with their complete classroom learning.
For nearly 35 years, McKee Homes has been building Airdrie one home at a time.

The developer has become a mainstay in the city and, since constructing its first home in 1987, McKee has maintained its reputation as an honest home builder with integrity and quality products.

However, what puts McKee Homes above the rest is its commitment to Airdrie and the surrounding area.

“We love our community, have raised our families here and look forward to helping out for many years to come,” said Elaine McKee Doel, McKee Homes’ president.

Built on the values of founder Martin McKee, the hometown homebuilder continues to honour the tradition of “building fine family homes for our neighbours.” This mission extends beyond construction and into a desire to leave a lasting impact on the community.

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A proud supporter of various not-for-profit organizations such as North Rocky View Community Links, Airdrie Food Bank, Airdrie Health Foundation, Airdrie Hospice Society and Airdrie Rotary Club, McKee also gives back to theatre groups, sports teams, school clubs, events and playgrounds, recreational clubs and more in Airdrie, Crossfield and area.

With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise the homebuilder was eager to be part of an innovative partnership with Rocky View Schools (RVS) to provide students a new way of learning, through its Building Futures program.

Entering its ninth year in September, Building Futures integrates curriculum requirements with real-world applications as students simultaneously build a home from the ground up in conjunction with their complete classroom learning.

“Students are introduced to every angle of home construction, in a classroom they help to build themselves, and in two new homes they help build to completion,” McKee Doel said. “All this, while getting their high-school-academic education right on site. It’s really cool and we are so proud to be part of it.”

The brainchild of then-George McDougall teachers Greg Rankin and Jarett Hooper, Building Futures sees students working with tradespeople to contribute to the construction of two McKee Homes houses each year. These homes are for real homebuyers and to date, more than 200 students have participated in the completion of these top-quality builds.

McKee Doel knew Hooper from when he taught her sons’ shop class and said she was happy to explore the idea of McKee Homes’ involvement in Building Futures.

“We thought – great – we could have 10 young people come to our sites a few times a week and have them learn about building. They said, ‘Actually we were thinking full immersion.’ Once we caught our breath, we simply made it happen thanks to our great group of trades, staff and the support of the City,” McKee Doel said.

“We love our industry. And we know we need to show the great opportunities that exist within it to our next generation, to let them experience firsthand the amazing career options. The choice was easy.”

She added collaborating for the program fit well with the company’s core values and the belief a community is made stronger by its members being involved.

“What better way than to show youth what they can create,” she said. “We never looked at the option of it not being achievable, and here we are almost a decade later, still sharing our knowledge and pride.”

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“McKee Homes is just an incredible organization,” said Rankin, who is now principal of Rocky View Schools Community Learning Centre. “Rocky View Schools, of course, is looking after every student but that doesn't mean the private sector always is. But here, you have McKee Homes that is willing to invest time and money and their people into something they believe is important for Airdrie. It's incredible when you think about what they're giving back to the city.”

Originally available only to Grade 10 students in Airdrie, Building Futures is now offered in Cochrane and the Airdrie program expanded to students in Grade 11 this year. Increases program access to high-school juniors enables students who have already completed the program to further develop their skills, while allowing those who didn't participate in Grade 10 a chance to experience the popular program.

“I think the biggest part is having a partner like McKee Homes jump on board and say we want to allow kids an opportunity to explore something real and explore it with professionals,” Rankin said. “When the tradespeople come in, they're really giving a lot of time and energy to work with students. And a lot of the tradespeople that started with us are still coming back…which, I think, says a lot about McKee and the people that that work for them.”

Coleman Massey, one of two current Building Futures teachers in Airdrie, said the partnership with McKee allows students “a very unique experience, and even our tradespeople are a little bit jealous of the opportunity the students have.”

“Our kids get this really, really diverse and very in-depth look at various different stages of construction, but also various different parts of the building industry,” Massey said. “We're lucky to have McKee Homes and have so many great people there who are willing to come and talk to our kids about zoning. To come talk to our kids about permits. To come talk to our kids about the MLS listings, the sales section of it, the staging of the house.”

In addition to the insight offered by McKee employees, Building Futures students also learned about mortgages and credit last year, thanks to a local mortgage broker from Smart Mortgage Solutions.

“I think when people see our program, they initially think that it's, ‘Oh, kids get to build a house,’ but it's so much more than that,” Massey said. “They get to experience the construction industry and the homebuilding industry from the inside out, which is a really, really cool opportunity that McKee Homes affords us, and we're very grateful for that.”

He said though the program doesn't force connections between curriculum-based learning and the process of building a house, the two mesh well. Massey used the example of globalization, which is part of the social studies curriculum. He said students get a real-world example of the concept when they see the various components required to build a house come from around the world.

Rankin said Building Futures gives students a new perspective on life as a working adult. For example, completing most of a math test might be enough to get a passing grade, but installing three-quarters of the drywall in a home won’t fly.

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He added the program also builds students’ pride in their work and showcases the impact of community involvement.

“We felt that it was an important thing the kids could see the house go up and you can leave at the end of the day, really happy that something was done and complete,” Rankin said. “When the kids put together the stone in the fireplace, it was done, and the owner was going to be looking at that fireplace every day and using it – and that was something that the kids had created.”         

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the 2020-21 school year, the program had to adapt to limitations placed on access to the job site. However, students had brainstormed local community organizations for the class to become involved with at the beginning of the year, and one of those groups just so happened to need skilled labourers. With approval from McKee Homes and RVS, students helped construct shelters and habitats for animals at the Alberta Pound and Rescue Centre's (APARC) Airdrie warehouse, located at 2 East Lake Way N.E.

“I think it was an overall rewarding experience for our kids last year,” Massey said. “Just to put it into perspective, we had a snow day, one of those days where Rocky View Schools shut down buses and schools closed. We still went to the place and told our kids they get the option to show up, but teachers and the McKee Homes representatives will be there. And we had about 90 per cent of our class show up.”

He added that McKee Homes also “jumped right on it with their help in terms of human power,” and the company’s Building Futures Project Manager Sheri McAllister even came to help.

“I cannot speak well enough about Sheri McAllister,” Massey said. “She took time off to help us there. It was really, really cool to have everyone kind of come together in that moment.”

The work at APARC – which opened its facility in Airdrie in 2020 after operating a successful branch in Medicine Hat – not only brought home the message of community involvement and doing something for others, Massey said, but “the one thing that kids really reflected on with the whole experience was the legacy.”

“I've been a teacher in the community for almost a decade now and one thing I've noticed – and I've taught high school the entire time – is oftentimes people give teenagers a bad rap,” he said. “The teenagers don't care; they have it so easy. But the reality is they do care. They care deeply. They just oftentimes need the opportunity to showcase that.”

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Massey said exposing students to positive community involvement when they are on the precipice of being an adult provides them a better understanding of what it means to be a community member.

“They take that back to their schools; they take that back into their daily framework. And then in the future, they apply that to their post-secondary or to their job or to their travels, whatever it may be,” he said. “They see the value in building a strong community; they see the value in being part of a community. From a teacher's perspective, that's great. That's exactly what we're trying to instill – respect for the community and the desire to better your community.

“To see that modelled by an institution such as McKee Homes – and that's what it is because they've been in Airdrie for 35 years, almost – to see them giving a damn about kids, the kids see that and feed on that. It is really, really impactful.”

While the Building Futures program will continue working with its partners at McKee, Massey said the hope is to expand and build strong partnerships with the post-secondary community. He said conversations with SAIT have allowed Building Futures to be more conducive to the post-secondary institute's dual credit programming. This year's crop of students will be the first to have the opportunity to concurrently work towards a high-school diploma and complete some post-secondary studies.

As Building Futures evolves, Massey said none of it would be possible without McKee Homes.

“Those first kids that graduated Building Futures eight years ago are finished university or college now, or are well along in their career and life’s path,” he said. “To see them and their impacts and the credit being given to a program such as this is really cool.

“That really goes back to McKee and their willingness to accept students into this program and see the benefit of a program like this as not just the cool opportunity, but also the community-building opportunity.”