02/22/2016 AT 5:50 PM ET
Home construction is going to the dogs – literally, at least in the case of one high school teacher. For the past 14 years, building and construction instructor (and pet lover) Barry Stewart has taught students a valuable trade and a lesson in compassion by having them design and build hundreds of houses for dogs and feral cats. All of houses made by the students are then donated to pet shelters and needy families.
It began in 2002 when Stewart worked as a shop teacher at the Career Center in North Carolina and sought an easy but effective project that would give students hands-on experience. By chance, he ran across Forsyth County Animal Control's Houses for Hounds program, which coordinates with multiple animal welfare groups to provide free dog houses to lower income residents in the area. Stewart surmised that since pet houses are, in essence, miniature versions of human homes, building them would prove to be both a teaching tool and a chance to contribute to a meaningful cause.
“The framing technique and terminology for pet housing is the same as for a regular house,” Stewart told PEOPLE. “The floor system, wall system, roof system and all the actual parts are identical. So, every part we use on the pet houses we can reference to the correlating part in the home. I realized that it would be easy enough to work into what we were doing in the classroom. It was a good fit.”
Not only do Stewart's students learn the basics of building techniques — including the proper use of power tools and how to choose the best materials — they also learn design and critical thinking skills, as illustrated by changes made after the first batch of pet homes were completed. The original dog houses had center-placed doors, a flat entranceway and metal roofs.
Thinking through the functionality of the pet houses led to redesigns, including moving the doorway from the center to one side, so that the dog would be better protected from winds and rain blowing into the structures; adding two-inch lips to the entryway floors to keep dogs from dragging their bedding outside; and pitched roofs with layered tiles that better trap heat during frigid winters. They also outfitted feral cat houses with removable rooftops to make it easier for caretakers to clean the houses and to fetch kittens when they're ready for spaying, neutering or other necessary care.
“That experience taught students that there is actually a thought process behind most things,” Stewart said. “Even a really good idea can withstand some improvements.”
Over the years, Stewart and his students have crafted over 600 dog houses and 110 feral cat houses that have been donated to shelters, rescues and families. He recently moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he's continuing the project with construction and building students at Englewood High School and donating pet homes to local animal welfare nonprofits, including Friends of Jacksonville Animals and Epic Animals Outreach. They've recently added feeding stations to their building repertoire.
Many of the pet homes are given to public animal welfare field officers, who keep them on hand to give to pet owners they encounter during their rounds. Often, these pet owners don't realize that, despite their coats, domestic dogs and cats can suffer frostbite and even freeze to death if left outside in frigid temperatures. This is particularly true of short-haired, small dogs and very young or elderly dogs.
Having the pet houses on hand allows an opportunity for animal welfare officers to educate owners on the risks of leaving their pets in the elements. It also provides quick help to those who simply cannot afford a proper shelter for their pets.
“Most of them are just ecstatic,” says Keith Murphy, who helped coordinate the Houses for Hounds program and is co-founder of UNchain Winston, a program of the Forsyth Humane Society, which builds free fences for area families with dogs continuously tethered outside. “They just can't believe that fellow citizens and volunteers will help them out, provide something at no cost. Many are not convinced that the houses are free until the very last second. It's not unusual to get hugs from people.”
Besides learning a job skill, it's that community benefit that interests 14-year-old Nicholas Talley, a ninth grade student of Stewart's.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Talley said of learning of the project. “I have a dog also and I know not all dogs get shelter. It feels good to build a house for a dog that doesn't have shelter and to give back in a way.”
Talley's own dog, an 8-year-old boxer named Bella, was rescued from a fighting ring and served as a canine companion for a woman battling cancer before being adopted by Talley's family.
“Each year, there are always a few students in the class that are passionate about pets and put a little extra effort into it. They want everything to fit perfectly and spend a lot of time and care on what they're doing,” says Stewart, who has two pets of his own – a 14-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Rascal, and Zena, a longhaired cat who “rules the house.”
As for hearing just what a difference the houses make: “It kind of pulls at your heartstrings when you think of the joy people get, especially children playing with their pets,” he says.