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.