Innovators and renovators

What do you do when you want a do-it-yourself solution to high fuel bills? Why, collect 750 soda cans, of course. That's what Ralph Chick of East Weymouth, Mass., decided when he became discouraged by the price of commercial solar panels. In planning to make his own , however, he realized he could save money on necessary sheet aluminum by using the cans instead. Spray-painted black, they were magnets for the sun's heat.

Mr. Chick then rallied his neighbors on a can-collection campaign for his self-made 100-square-foot solar panel, which draws air from the house, circulates it through the panel, and then returns the heated air back to various rooms through a duct system. The system was very successful last year, and Chick is now experimenting with storing heat in an insulated bin full of stones, located in his basement.

Chick was just one of many recent award winners from the ''That's My House!'' competition, sponsored by Boston's Neworld Bank. The contest, which rewards innovative approaches to any kind of home improvement, now is in its second year and spans not only Boston itself but 45 additional suburban communities.

Projects are judged for their overall quality and practicality and entries are limited to one- to four-family owner-occupied residences. Too, owners must spend at least $1,000 on renovations.

Interest in the competition has burgeoned since its inception a year ago. While judges determined the quality of 257 applications in 1981, this year 410 projects - which ranged from building a new, larger house around an old one to renovating an unused attic - rolled in. In total, $36,000 in prize money was given out to 28 families.

As a home lender, says Terry Loughlin, vice-president of marketing at Neworld , the bank ''wanted to award people for improving existing housing stock. And once one person starts improving his home, it has a stimulating effect on others in the neighborhood.''

Ms. Loughlin notes the example of two regional winners in Chelsea, one of whom began improvements when he, out of curiosity, wandered by his renovating neighbor's house to see what was going on.

Neighborhood regeneration is an important aspect of many of the projects. Daniel and Jenny Davis, priced out of several suburbs like many middle-income families, decided to buy a building in his native Roxbury that had been vacant and boarded up for 12 years. Their entry won them the grand prize for Boston in which they competed with winners from 15 other city neighborhoods.

''We had to gut the whole thing,'' says Mr. Davis, who worked with his wife on the building for two years.

''It was in desperate need of rehabilitation,'' he adds.

Davis, a musician by profession, had to replace the structure's entire rear wall. Today, however, with solar greenhouses, a first-floor rental, and a two-floor home for themselves, he and his wife, an artist, say they are delighted with the results.

''There's a strong sense of neighborhood there,'' Davis comments enthusiastically, ''and there's a lot of development planned for the area. I guess I'm just a pioneer, which is what the area needs.''

There's no lack of enthusiasm on the part of contestants, all of whom lavished a large amount of tender, loving care on their homes. Some seem to be spurred as much by necessity as preference, as in the case of the Hingham family who bought their home in winter, only to discover when the snow melted that they had a multicolored shingles on the roof.

Prize money obviously does not cover the entire cost of renovations, nor is it intended to do so. Instead, points out Ms. Loughlin of Neworld Bank, ''after all the years you can spend on fixing a house, it's nice to have a real pat on the back.''

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