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The Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts
Articles About Heartwood

Building Blocks
by Joshua Rosenbaum

From Continental Airlines Profiles, July 1991

Jennifer Lee, a single mother of three, had virtually no carpentry experience when she bought three acres of land in Windsor, Massachusetts, in 1987. With only the help of her children – then ages 5, 8, and 11 – she built almost all of her 1,200-square-foot house, including placing the concrete piers for the foundation. Lee learned her house-building skills at Michele and Will Beemer's Heartwood Owner-Builder School in Washington, Massachusetts.

Heartwood, which opened in 1978, is one of a handful of schools in the United States that aim to teach laymen the skills they need to build their own homes. Students pay $1100 each, or $1,900 per couple, for a three-week course that includes morning classroom instruction and workshops and afternoons spent working on construction projects. Critics – notably professional contractors – have scoffed that you can't teach someone to build a house in three weeks. But Heartwood and other schools like it, have proved them wrong. More than 2,000 people have completed the Heartwood home-building program and shorter seminars on such topics as timber framing, finish carpentry, contracting, and renovation. Students have ranged in age from 13 to 72, divided equally among men and women, and they've hailed from as far away as Scotland, Hawaii, even Japan. Alumni include teachers, truck drivers, social workers, students, attorneys, musicians, artists, and retirees. The majority have had little or no construction experience. But classes also are likely to include professional builders as well as architects who are eager to get the kind of hands-on experience that's rare at most universities.

Economics is a major reason many take the course, according to the Beemers. Last year the median price of a new home in the United States topped $122,000 and the median price of an existing home was about $95,500, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Twenty years ago, close to half of U.S. families were able to afford their own homes; that percentage has plunged to little more than one-quarter today.

Will Beemer estimates that people who build their houses almost entirely by themselves end up paying only 40 percent of the price of a commercially built house. Even people who don't actually pound the nails, but those who act as their own contractors, stand to realize major savings, getting a finished house for 80 percent of the normal price.

But saving money is only one reason people choose to build rather than buy. "It's the experience that people want more than anything," says Will. The love of building and of fine craftsmanship pervades the atmosphere at Heartwood and is passed on to the students – from the respect for tools and materials to the importance of precise measurement and workmanship, from the emphasis on site planning to the concern for energy efficiency. "Many people come here seeking ways to save money," says Michele, "but they learn very quickly that quality counts, too."

Attention to quality is something sorely lacking in many commercially built houses, contends Will. "I worked for a company in Phoenix, Arizona," he says, "and I was appalled. The houses would go up in three days. Most everything was prefabricated. There were guys who would cut lumber freehand while they were walking and nail it in. If it was an inch short, it was no big deal."

For many people, Will admits, owner-building is a luxury. "If all you're concerned about is the cost of housing, modular housing is going to be hard to beat," Will concedes. "It's going to be cheap and it's probably functional enough in most places, but I think it's life draining." Unfortunately, he adds, "a lot of people are numb to that. Those are the people who'll probably never even realize that we exist. But if you're willing to put in the time and the care that it takes to build your own home, you're going to end up with a house that is finely tuned to your own life-style."

Many of the ideas that the Beemers convey to their students are influenced by the work of British architect Christopher Alexander, a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. Using Alexander's theories of building and others, Heartwood teaches students to consider how they live and how that life-style should be reflected in their living space. Do you want the kitchen to be the center for eating and conversation, for example, or do you prefer a separate, more formal dining area? Would you like your bedroom to be near enough to your children's bedroom so that you can hear them, or do you opt for quiet? Do you work at home? Do you need privacy to pursue artistic interests? Would you rather rise with the sun – in which case, your bedroom should face east – or do you work the night shift and prefer to sleep late?

A good house, says Michele Beemer, "reflects the life within." Most commercially built houses don't consider the unique personalities of their inhabitants. Instead, they reflect the common denominator of American culture. Says Will, "The problem with most commercially built houses is that the plans are based on what most people want. They don't reflect the needs of individuals. You can hire an architect to tell you what you need, but for most people, that's an unnecessary expense. When it comes to designing your own house, anyone can be their own architect."

Heartwood's morning classes are held in the student-built schoolhouse overlooking the verdant hills and meadows of the Berkshires. As light streams into the second-floor classroom – carefully sited to let the sun burn off the morning chill and deflect the midday heat – Will discusses such topics as tool handling, cost estimates, rafter calculations, and other essentials of home-building.

After classes break for a homecooked lunch, students head to a building site where they'll spend the afternoon working on actual construction projects. Under the watchful eyes of Will, Michele, and several other instructors, the students attempt to master the skills they've studied in the morning sessions. For example, to review framing, the class might put up rafters for a building. Members of a recent three-week class built a garage from the foundation up, laid the rafters on a house, and added a porch to another home.

The house that the Beemers recently built for themselves illustrates their commitment to merging function with form. The 2,000-square-foot home uses what's known as a hybrid frame: a combination of traditional timber or "post and beam" framing inside to give the house a lofty, open plan, with conventional stud or "stick building" framing for the exterior walls. The three-bedroom house has a cupola on top for use as a study or extra bedroom, a masonry chimney, finely finished cherry wood floors, and handcrafted cabinets. The house, which is designed for maximum energy efficiency, is heated by a woodstove. A 12 - by - 16 foot greenhouse attached to the living space on the south side of the house also helps keep the structure warm. "Not only is it a great solar advantage," says Michele, "but it's lovely and all winter long we had salads from vegetables grown in the greenhouse." Even during the frigid New England winters, gas and electric bills only total about $60 a month.

It's one thing for a couple of skilled and experienced builders to construct their dream home. Can a novice be taught to build a house in a three-week course?

Single mother Jennifer Lee proved it could be done. "The foundation was difficult," Lee recalls. "But after that, the rest seemed like a piece of cake." Lee spent two and a years on the project and, through careful budgeting and searching for bargains on windows and used fixtures, completed her home within her budget estimate of $20,000. "I first took the Heartwood class to see if I could do it," she recalls. Financial constraints were a big motivation to build alone but "the experience was right up there," she notes. "I wanted to show my kids that a dream can come true. Also, she laughs, "I was getting a divorce and pounding nails got the frustration out." Lee shrugs off her accomplishment and claims that building a house takes no special skill. "You just have to like being outside, swinging the hammer, the hard work, and seeing something materialize."

Heartwood alumnus Tom Burkhard is probably a more typical owner-builder. He and his wife, Irene, had always been renters before buying seven acres of Berkshire land in 1983. Burkhard hired Will to work with him and also allowed Heartwood students to work on the house under Will's supervision. He subcontracted out excavation, plumbing, and roofing jobs. But Burkhard worked on the house almost every day after completing a midnight-to-8 A.M. shift as a computer operator at Spalding, a sporting goods firm in Chicopee, Massachusetts. "It gives new meaning to the term ’sweat equity,’ " he says with a laugh. By the time Burkhard and his wife move in later this summer, the project will have taken them a little over a year to complete.

For Burkhard the most difficult part of the project wasn't the physical work, but the endless worrying. "I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about where the electric fixtures should go," he recalls. "It was the first time we did anything like this. I kept wondering, ’Will I live to regret this?’" Tom notes that couples who plan to build together must have a strong marriage. "There's going to be lots of discussion, divergent ideas, the pressure of everyday tasks."

It can take anywhere from two to five years to build your own house, depending on how much free time and help you have. People who can devote a complete season to full-time building should be able to move in after one to two years.

Will's advice to would-be builders? "Just do it, just get started. Getting started is the hardest part."
     – Joshua Rosenbaum is a free-lance writer based in New York City.

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