The ABCs of housebuilding

WHEN friends first heard of our vacation plans, they politely asked, ``Oh, are you going to build a house?'' ``Well, no,'' my wife and I admitted, adding that our present home, a comfortable Cape Cod-style house west of Boston, suited us very well.

But our interest in housebuilding schools had been growing over the past few years, so we signed up for the three-week summer course offered by Cornerstones in Brunswick, Maine.

Our real interest in the course was to learn enough to someday build an addition, make our own home repairs, and, at the very least, deal more intelligently with tradesmen and contractors, who often seem to speak a foreign tongue.

There are some aspects of building, such as wiring, that I'd just as soon leave to others. On the whole, however, the course gave us the confidence, skill, and know-how to tackle even large construction and repair projects.

Most of our 17 classmates were from the East, but not all. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Washington State were represented. Ages ranged from 20-year-olds to near-retirees - men and women, college professors to industrial-shop foreman, to tomato researcher. Some people, of course, actually wanted to learn how to build their own houses. One classmate wanted to become a better consumer advocate for those with housing complaints, while another, a soon-to-be architecture student, sought hands-on building experience.

That experience came from afternoons spent working on a two-car garage - a real job arranged by our on-site instructor.

Not every homeowner, of course, would let a bunch of rookies do such work. In this case, however, the owner was seeking to economize after sinking a bundle into the construction of a beautiful post-and-beam house on a shorefront property about 10 miles outside of Brunswick.

The big garage was designed to echo the graceful lines of the house behind it. Ultimately it proved a little too large to complete in three weeks, but we came close, leaving the owner with a satisfactory structure that merely needed some finishing touches.

Marc Boutan, our hands-on instructor, introduced us to the tools and techniques used in basic carpentry.

Each student was asked to bring a 16-ounce claw hammer, a hammer holster, a 16- or 20-foot tape measure, a combination square, utility knife, and pencils.

An assortment of other tools were eventually used, but as we discovered in making practice stud walls at the Cornerstones workshop, none is perhaps as central to building as the motor-powered circular saw (71/4-inch model preferred). To the uninitiated, these howling saws can be rather intimidating, and as with any power tool, the user must be careful. But after a few trial cuts, you develop a feel for the circular saw and can begin using it with confidence.

A good hammer, of course, is another constant companion. The John Henry in our class was a wiry young New Jerseyan named Jeff. He had six months of house-framing experience, and used a 22-ounce hammer to make nails disappear with a couple of whacks.

We were all impressed, and sometimes a bit amused by his ``full steam ahead'' approach. When things weren't always on the money, Jeff's motto was: ``Nail it.'' He, more than most of his novice classmates, knew better than to fret over minor errors. It was a point also emphasized in the classroom, where our instructor reminded us, ``You're not building pianos.'' In rough carpentry, total precision is an impossible goal. The catch, of course, is to know when to be exacting, and when you can ease your standards.

One area where it pays to be careful is in squaring and leveling walls and foundations. A lot of down-the-line aggravation can be avoided this way, since these errors only become more pronounced further along. Any number of techniques for checking were shared in class, as was this important rule: Measure twice, cut once.

At the job site, the group was divided into four teams - each one responsible for a side of the garage. Walls and roof rafters went up rapidly, followed by the slower tasks of affixing tongue-and-groove sheathing and cedar shingles. In some cases, we were only able to get a taste of certain facets of building. The perimeter foundation, for example, had been poured a week before our arrival, so that we could start the carpentry work immediately. The basics of wiring were presented and applied one afternoon at the garage, and on the only afternoon it rained, workshops in plumbing and stairway construction were given back at the school.

Morning lectures on everything from insulation and foundations to vapor barriers, septic tanks, caulking, ventilation, and building materials complemented the hands-on experience.

Bruce Olsen, a Colby College graduate who turned from biology to carpentry and spent the last decade or so building houses and living a backwoods life, was our teacher. On the surface, a bushy beard, mustache, and pony tail suggested that he might be into building subterranean, cost-saving homes, or something equally as unconventional. In fact, after tiring of feeding a woodburning stove, Mr. Olsen was pretty conservative in his approach, and warned students against overemphasizing energy efficiency.

Our textbook was ``From the Ground Up,'' by Charlie Wing, a somewhat technical work that's hardly light reading. What I found far more practical and less theoretical was ``Against the Grain: A Carpentry Manual for Women'' (Iowa City Women's Press). It's worth the effort to track down this book, by Dale McCormick, a former Cornerstones instructor, reportedly the first licensed female carpenter in the United States.

With new ownership planning to move Cornerstones to a nearby college, students may be housed in dormitories. But this year, those who mailed in a $50 enrollment deposit were sent a list of housing options, ranging from bed-and-breakfasts to campgrounds.

Everyone was fairly price conscious, since the $495 tuition ($795 for couples) did not include any ``board.'' We made arrangements over the phone to rent a ``no smoking'' room with kitchen privileges in a private home. To our great delight, this choice was perfect. Not only was the rate extremely reasonable ($65 a week), but our hosts were superb ``innkeepers.''

There is a kinship that goes with building a house (or even a garage) together, and that was the intangible reward that goes with taking a building course -- even if one's building dreams are never realized. But we suspect some of them will materialize, maybe even our own.

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