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Self-help housing. `Sweat equity' programs let would-be homeowners invest labor in lieu of dollars. (EAST COAST)

By Peter TongeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 1987

Orange, Mass.

IT'S cold at the building site, maybe 20 degrees F., when Terry Parker takes his second brief break of the day. The first flakes of an approaching snowstorm are just beginning to fall. He arrived here at an ``unearthly hour'' for a Sunday morning, and the hot chocolate now cupped in his hands is particularly welcome. ``This,'' he says, indicating the steaming mug, ``is what keeps me going on days like this.'' But the greater incentive to continue is the knowledge that he and wife, Cheryl, will soon move into a home that was beyond anything they could conceive of just a year ago.

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It's a three-bedroom post-and-beam gambrel design that, when finished, would fetch between $80,000 and $85,000 on the open market in this rural Massachusetts community. In a Boston suburb, the same house would fetch two and three times that figure. So for a machinist earning $22,000 a year and with no money for a down payment, the home is an ``impossible dream'' come true. ``Look at it,'' he says with obvious pleasure, ``the beams are all solid oak.''

The Parkers aren't the only ones feeling pretty good about life right now. Ted and Terri Matteson, and Matt Battchelder and his fianc'ee, Cyndy Bourbeau, will all move into similarly substantial homes alongside the Parkers in early May.

Home owning for these three couples has been made possible through a ``sweat-equity'' program that allows them to invest labor, in lieu of dollars, as the down payment on the mortgage.

Programs such as this one in central Massachusetts are slowly spreading around the United States. They generally involve a non-profit community development organization, and always require the cooperation of a banker who recognizes the dollar value of hands-on labor by the prospective owners. To be successful, the programs also require the expert supervision of a qualified builder to coach the new owners through the building project.

Mark Shoul, executive director of the Millers River Self-Help Network, a community development corporation, watched real estate prices begin to rise sharply, while wage levels merely inched higher, and decided to do something to help. The obvious answer lay in a program where the would-be homeowners could contribute significantly in the only way they could - with their own labor. So Mr. Shoul approached Tom Muscow, a local builder, with the request to design a house that would be relatively straightforward to erect, inexpensive to heat and cool, and still have the quality and looks to compete with any other on the open market.

Mr. Muscow's came up with two post-and-beam, stress-skin panel designs - a gambrel and a Cape Cod. Stress-skin panels are sections of wall made up of a thick, rigid foam insulation sandwiched between half-inch particle board for the exterior and interior sheet rock. The lightweight 4-by-8-foot sections are simply nailed side by side to the post-and-beam frame to form the wall. Anyone who can wield a hammer and saw along a straight line can do the job.

The foam-core panels provide R20 insulation which, coupled with the tight construction, produces living space that is cheap to heat and cool, according to Shoul.