The rush to house-building classes

Beth Wasmer and Sandy Wilson just finished hammering the last nail into the floorboards of the passive solar house they designed and built in the Colorado mountains.

Like thousands of other people, they learned the skills they needed -- from drafting to raising a roof to installing a wood burning sotve -- at one of the new owner-builder schools popping up from Maine to California.

These schools attract all kinds of people -- from lawyers to truck drivers, engineers to schoolteachers, and bankers to carpenters. Unlike do-it-yourself builders of a century ago, 35 percent of today's are women.

Some of these people want to beat the high cost of a buying a new home -- which today aveages $76,800 in the United States. Others want to express self-sufficiency and creativity. All want energy-efficient homes to save on fuel.

Most of the schools offer a series of three-week courses from May through October. "Hands on" experience, combined with lectures and slides, covers topics such as pouring a foundation, building your own solar greenhouse, building stairs, and cutting and shaping steel. Tuition runs up to $500.

Schools in the eastern part of the country include the Cornerstone School in Brunswick, Maine; the Shelter Institute in Bath, Maine; Heartwood in Washington, Mass.; and Yestermorrow in Warren, Vt.

Students come from Europe, Latin America, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Canada, Mexico, and every state in the US, according to the Shelter Institute, which trained 2,000 new builders last year.

On the West Coast, the Owner Builder Center based in Berkeley, Calif., the largest of all the schools with a staff of 45, teachers in 10 cities in the San Francisco Bay area.

"Our average student is between 25 and 40 years old and makes $18,000 to $40, 000 a year," says Robert Roskind, founder of the two-year-old school. "Most students have enough money to buy their land and materials but can't afford to have someone go out and build their house for them."

Students generally build houses that cost between $20 to $30 a square foot, notes Mr. Roskind. New houses on the market average $40 to $60 a square foot and can go up as high as $100 a square foot.

Charles Wing, founder of the Cornerstone School and author of "From the Ground Up," a basic text on house building, says, "In the rural areas of the country it's always been a custom to build your own house. But the more affluent city people have been raised to believe they can't do it themselves.

"These people were never educated in life's basic skills, like house building and fixing your own car. Now they want to learn to be self-sufficient. It's all a part of a new attitude."

In a recent Cornerstone survey,99 percent of all new builders questioned said that building their own home was far more difficult than they thought it would be. The project was generally more expensive, far more time-consuming, and a bigger project than they expected. But 100 percent of the builders said they did not regret building their own home and would do it again.

Pat and Patsy Hennin, who run the Shelter Institute with a staff of 25, say they teach students to keep building costs down by using locally available materials.

"On a shoestring you can make a home very comfortable to live in," says Mrs. Hennin, who with her husband built a $7,000, energy efficient home in Woolrich, Maine, from locally abundant hemlock wood. The cost did not include the land or foundation.

Most do-it-yourself builders take about nine months to build their own homes, according to the Census Bureau. Many have no experience as builders before they begin.

Students in California build western-style houses with six-foot verandas that encircle the structure. They also build modern-style homes that sometimes wrap around trees. Both types of houses utilize passive solar design and have greenhouses.

Students in Maine build salt-box houses -- a typical New England style dating back to the 1700s. The house also uses passive solar design with insulated shutters and a central chimney. One or two cores of wood are used during the winter for heat.

The market value of the do-it-yourself homes generally is about four times what it cost to build them. One Maine resident who built his home three years ago for $22,000 sold it last year for $90,000.

Last year 19 percent of the 1.3 million new homes started and completed in the US were owner built, according to the Census Bureau. In most cases the homes were built partly by the owner and partly with paid help.

Says Carter Henderson, fomer London bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and author of the forthcoming book, "New Age Investing": "I consider do-it-yourself enterprises where people can empower themselves to do more on their own to be a wave of the future.

"As the economy moves from its postwar era of cornucopia level of abundance to more Spartan levels of consumption, people are going to have to learn how to do things with their own two hands that they had been accustomed to paying someone to do. . . ."

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