Student housing Construction: Montgomery County high school students build a home each year under a nonprofit foundation. The newest one sells for $349,000, but probably could sell for more.

December 14, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The Edward family lives in a house built by amateurs -- and they love it.

When they moved to Silver Spring two years ago, they joined 24 other families in homes built by the Montgomery County Students Construction Trades Foundation, a high school vocational program.

"When we tell our friends it was built by students, they're surprised," said Suprabha Edward, who loves her spacious kitchen and light and airy living spaces. "We've had no problems. We're very happy."

The nonprofit foundation was founded in 1976 as a partnership between the school system and construction and real estate industries.

"These houses may be built by amateurs, but they are supervised and nit-picked by professionals and county inspectors," said Andrew H. Simpson, president of both the foundation and a Rockville plumbing and heating company. "If a 2-by-4 needs four nails, it probably has six.

"If I could afford to buy one of these homes, I would. They are well constructed, they are over-constructed," he said, sitting by the fireplace in the most recently completed home.

The latest student project for sale is a fouur-bedroom colonial that sits on Sullivan Court, a quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by five of the students' finished products and their latest endeavor. It's price is $349,000 -- the foundation's break-even point.

"We're not here to compete against the market," said Thomas J. Kemp, who directs the program. "People say, 'You must be able to build houses cheaper because you're using student labor,' but kids aren't cheap. Where it takes a builder 90 days to put a house up, it takes us the whole school year."

Foundation directors use the proceeds to buy and prepare land for the next year's house and purchase the building materials.

The house was designed in 1996 by Owen Fink, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School student, and the plans refined by Kenneth A. Weinstein, a Washington-area architect who serves on the foundation's board of directors.

It has 3,100 square-feet of finished living space plus 1,550-square-feet of unfinished space with a walk-out to the backyard.

Nestled in the corner of the eat-in kitchen is a desk and overhead cabinets that could be used as an office or as a homework station where young Internet users could remain under the watchful eye of someone making dinner.

The first floor also has a family room that looks out on the woods, living room, dining room, laundry room and a den.

At the top of the oak staircase is a master suite with two walk-in closets and bathroom with whirlpool. Three smaller bedrooms and two baths complete the second floor.

Brass lighting and plumbing fixtures, General Electric appliances and oak floors and cabinets dot the rooms.

The houses weren't always this lavish.

During the program's formative period, students built nine moderately priced starter homes in Silver Spring, sometimes erecting two per school year.

But as students were lured to other non-constrction trades, the program's administrators decided to concentrate on one large house each year.

This year's design was chosen in May by a panel of professionals from 38 entries by students from Springbrook and Thomas Edison high schools. The winner was Jeremy Gelling's 2,900-square-foot, four-bedroom country colonial.

"In this project, we never build the same house twice," said Kemp. "Each house is a model house. Builders build models and work the bugs out. We have to do it on the fly."

By late June, county permits were secured, and by the time students returned to school in September, subcontractors had dug the foundation.

During a recent brisk fall morning, about 60 students from the carpentry, plumbing and masonry classes swarmed over the skeleton of their project, trying to get it ready for the roofers.

Tougher safety regulations prompted foundation supervisors to switch a number of years ago from student roofers to subcontractors. Still, the students will gather to watch and learn when the pros show up later this month.

"If we teach it, we try to do it. If we don't teach it, we sub it," said Kemp.

Despite the outside help, there's plenty of work to go around and a timetable to be met. Afterall, the foundation carries the loan on the project until the house is sold.

The students are there for different reasons.

Some said they might not pursue a career in construction trades because, as senior Brian Wallace noted, "it's harder than I thought it would be." Still, he's convinced he's learning a skill he can use even if it's only to fix something in his own home.

Antoine Wright, a junior studying carpentry, said he signed up for the program after driving by last year's house a number of times and marveling at its progress and reliance on teamwork.

Josh Hochman, a senior, said he will use his plumbing skills each summer to earn money toward his tuition at the University of Maryland and, later, medical school.

"I'm pleased with how hands-on it is. We get instruction and then they let us work through it," Hochman said.

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