Montgomery Building Pains

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Stephen Haynie found his groove.

It took a hammer, some nails and a couple of splinters, but in the building of a half-million-dollar home in Silver Spring, the teenager found a reason to actually like coming to class -- every day.

Suddenly, the 16-year-old who spent most of his time cooling his heels in the principal's office, doing just enough to get by but not much more, is pulling a 3.0.

"It totally changed my school career," he said of the program at Thomas Edison High School of Technology that gives Montgomery County students the chance to build a house every year. "Edison has totally straightened me out. I've learned more in the past two years than I have in all my life."

By any measure, this has been a banner year for the construction trades program at Edison, where over the years thousands of students have learned carpentry, plumbing, masonry and other skills. This year alone, 445 students helped construct the program's 35th home. More students than ever earned scholarships, are heading to college or have been hired for summer work or permanent jobs by construction firms.

And the 2,252-square-foot, student-built home with detached garage and spa bathtub? It's expected to set an all-time sales record when bids are unsealed this week.

It also could be one of the final houses built by students.

"Unless we find some land, we're out of business," said Bill Hancock, owner of William Hancock Builders and a member of the Montgomery County Students Construction Trades Foundation. "Land is a problem, it's a real problem."

Thirty years ago when the program started, a decent lot in, say, Bethesda, could be bought for $15,000 to $17,000. Of course, that was back when Interstate 270 was four lanes and Rockville was a toll phone call from the District. Today, lots -- just the land with no improvements -- are fetching a minimum of $250,000, Hancock estimated.

"The problem we've run into is that there are no lots south of Frederick available for less than $250,000 -- maybe even $275,000," Hancock said.

"I'm sure we couldn't afford the property we have now if it were to go to on the market," said Steve Boden, executive director of the foundation. "Things have gotten so expensive over the last five years. Everything we have goes into purchasing the next piece of land, buying tools and providing scholarships."

The school system provides the teachers, classroom materials and students -- who earn credit, not pay -- and the nonprofit foundation is responsible for purchasing the land and materials needed to make the home project possible. Any profit from the sale of the houses goes to the foundation, which reinvests such money into buying more land, completing projects and funding scholarships for students who want to further their education.


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