Making Dream Homes Come True

Hands-on school in Vermont shows students how to build houses to suit their own needs

JUST standing outside at the Warren Ele-mentary School playground on this 93-degree F. afternoon brings on waves of perspiration.

But the steamy weather doesn't seem to bother this eager crew of builders as they saw boards, bang nails, and gather to listen to their instructor's latest tidbit of advice.

These amateur builders are actually stu-dents participating in a unique home-building program at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School here in Warren. In two weeks of design and building instruction in scenic Ver-mont, these folks are learning how to create their own ``dream houses.'' At the playground, they are building a children's fort as a practice project.

Participant Michael Butler - a surgeon s here to plan a new home for his family in Houma, La. - takes a break from sawing. He enrolled in the home-design class so he can talk knowledgeably with architects and builders once he returns home.

``I'm planning a fairly contemporary house on the water on nine acres that is kind of part of the landscape, energy-efficient, low-mainte-nance, and long-lasting,'' he says.

Another student, Jim Kuliesis, is designing a 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom home for himself and his wife. A mail carrier from Dighton, Mass., Mr. Kuliesis says the course has opened possibilities for homes beyond what he imagined. ``It is a whole different way of thinking,'' he says. ``I am used to the idea of, `This is a house, live in it.' [Now,] I want to design a house that's built for me. I want it to be part of me.''

Yestermorrow was started in 1980 by Yale-educated architect John Connell. Situated on a 38-acre campus, the nonprofit school has its offices in the renovated caretaker's office of a nearby dilapidated building once called the Alpen Inn.

Mr. Connell started the school after he became frustrated with his earlier work at an architectural firm. There he found that while most architects are trained to build commercial and mu-nicipal structures, they weren't as well suited to help individuals build their own homes.

``We're trained to recognize the needs of everybody. But you can't do that for people and their homes,'' he says. ``Nobody knows better how they live than the people themselves.''

The ``yester'' in the school's name comes from the idea of using the prac-tices of yesterday's agrarian society, when people built houses and barns to suit their individual needs, Connell says.

The ``morrow'' comes from the notion of using the advancing technol-ogy, resources, and ideas of tomorrow to create energy-efficient, long-lasting homes.

The school offers such courses as cabinetry, landscape design, and ceramic til-ing besides the two-week-long home-design class. Staff at Yestermorrow includes a team of architects, builders, and artists from around the country. Courses are designed ei-ther for the ``layperson'' or ``professional.''

AMATEURS considering a stint at Yestermorrow should be warned: The work is demanding. The home-design course, for example, is rigorous and includes a morning design class followed by an afternoon outdoor construction class and evening lectures. By the course's end, students try to complete a design and cardboard model of their projects. Cost for the layperson home-design course is $1,355.

Compared with other home-building pro-grams, Yestermorrow is unique because it em-phasizes design, not just construction, says Gunnar Hubbard, executive director of the program. ``There is a passion in design,'' he says. ``If you are just teaching people `how to' how to do this, how to do that - and younot talking about a design as far as aesthetics and views and quality of materials and dura-bility ... you're [not] expanding the purpose.''

Back in the home-design classroom, Steve Sparks from Calgary, Alberta, is seated at a drafting table. Pointing to his hand-drawn de-sign of a retreat home for his mother, he explains how he created it to fit her personal-ity. Because she is an avid reader and loves plants, Mr. Sparks has created plenty of shelv-ing space along the interior walls of the house as well as a garden and indoor and outdoor planters. The home will have a view of the Rocky Mountains, he says.

``I am a developer by trade, so I know a little bit about design and a little bit about construction.... I'm here to fill in a lot of gaps,'' he says.

Many students go on to complete the home projects they design. Betsy Wilkens - who, along with her husband, Dean, was a 1982 Yestermorrow graduate - built themselves the three-bedroom Vermont ski vacation house they designed in class.

The two went back to the school in 1988 and built a new three-bedroom con-temporary home in Windsor, Conn. Ms. Wilkens likes the house because it meets the couple's specific needs. For example, she doesn't like carrying groceries from the car to the house, so the two built the kitchen right off the garage. They also designed the house to include a workshop and small back porch for her husband.

Mr. Wilkens took nine months off from his job as a software designer to build the Connecticut home. Mean-while, Betsy Wilkens, a librarian, han-dled the negotiations with the plumber, building inspector, and other tradespeople. ``We're so into this that we are in the process of buying a lot up in New Hampshire on a lake. I think s a record for Yestermorrow - three houses,'' she says.

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