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The House That Heather Built (at age 15)

The House That Heather Built
By Deb Baker

Many 15-year-olds are considering college and thinking about living away from home. When Heather Martin was 15, she dreamed of continuing her self-directed education while living in her own home – one she built herself!

You might think home ownership is expensive and construction is a field best left to professionals. But an increasing number of people are becoming owner builders, learning enough about each aspect of home construction to do most of the work alone. As a life long unschooler, Heather decided that she could teach herself enough to build a small home, learning as she went. “The inspiration was to have my very own house,” she says.

As she worked on youth conservation corps crews, Heather read everything she could find about building. She cites the library and the Internet as her key resources. Her dad, who is a carpenter, helped with advice and technical terminology. After saving money for about two years through Tangible Assets, an individual development account savings program which helps low-income Vermont residents, Heather was ready to begin.

Finding a building site was the easiest part for Heather, since she lives on Peace and Carrots, her family’s organic farm on ten acres in Vermont. Her mom was planning to put up a shack and had already obtained the permit. “I thought it would be a nice place, so I took it over!” Heather says. After choosing a plan at on the Internet, Heather ordered materials from her local lumberyard and got to work. Her house uses a post and pier foundation, which she dug herself.

Work on the house began in the summer. Although Heather took time off to work and travel, by the following spring she had the entire shell of the house complete, as well as the wiring for future electricity. The house is 24’x14’ and has a sleeping loft as well as the main floor. She installed eight windows and a door, and plans to build a greenhouse, and eventually a deck, porch, darkroom, and tool shed. She doesn’t have the house plumbed yet, but plans to do that eventually. So far, she uses candles for light and heats her house with a woodstove she got from a neighbor.

Using items leftover or recycled from other homes is one way owner builders keep costs down. In addition to the woodstove, Heather got a stovepipe, sink, refrigerator, a stove, a window and door, and a ladder, all for free. She also bought six used windows for $30. As she learned various carpentry skills, she was able to earn more money, and now earns about $18 an hour working on other people’s houses, which will enable her to continue working on her own.

Heather is proud that she did nearly all of the work alone, and she recently co-taught a session on framing at the Women Can Do conference, an annual event which encourages women to consider trades once thought of as men’s work. When I asked her how unschooling helped prepare her for building a house, she told me it is such a part of her life that it was hard to say. But she cites “being raised in the environment of ‘if you want it, do it’” as her source of a positive attitude toward learning and life. “Anything can be done if you want it bad enough,” she declares.

Heather suggests that other teens interested in building a house think about starting with a small project, especially if they have no prior building experience, and that they seek out a carpenter for advice and information. She says, “If you think you can do it, you’re right. If you think otherwise, you just need to read some more!” And when asked what part of house building was the most fun, Heather answers, “Not too many people build their own houses. It’s fun. People look at you in awe. You look at yourself in awe!”

What’s next for an 18-year-old who built herself a house? Heather plans to hike the Appalachian Trail, and hopes to someday build a boat and sail around the world. She has the confidence to pursue her dreams, as well as the ability to teach herself whatever she sets her mind to. Best of all, she has her own house to come home to when she is done exploring the world!

Writer Deb Baker is learning all the time with her husband and their two children, who have never been to school. A resident of Concord, New Hampshire, she says she can't pass a library or bookstore without going in, and dreams of traveling around the world someday. Deb writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for children and other curious people. This article was published in 2002.

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