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Sweat Equity

On a wooded mountainside in Maine, seven miles from the town of Norway and ''all the conveniences we need,'' Fred and Helen Kennedy are building the home they've talked about for years.

They are doing it themselves with occasional help from friends who drop by and hope to complete the 1,200-square-foot house for around $12,000. When the snows of winter cut short the operation just before the roof went up, they were, financially speaking, ''right on target.''

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David and Margaret Erdman are adding considerably to their suburban Boston home by extending it out several feet at the back and adding a two-story greenhouse. Further, they are raising the roof on a nearby rental property which they recently acquired.

While the Erdmans have not yet calculated the ultimate cost of the project, it was a ''do it ourselves or don't do it at all'' situation.

Both the Kennedys and the Erdmans are building by using a practice which is often called ''sweat equity.''

The American dream of home ownership has all but disappeared, as new home prices have risen from around $8,000 in the early 1950s to $80,000 today. Yet a growing group of ordinary folks from all walks of life have refused to accept that claim.

Instead, they have acquired the basic skills - and much more importantly, the self-confidence - of home building from one of the owner-builder schools that have sprung up around the country. These schools have come into being as a direct result of rocketing building costs and mortgage interest rates which were considered usurious as recently as the early 1970's.

By some estimates some 200,000 owner-builder homes will be constructed in the US this year - testimony to the growing influence of these schools.

There are perhaps a score or more such schools now operating, but the forerunners of the movement are two Maine operations, Shelter Institute of Bath and Cornerstones Energy Group of nearby Brunswick, followed by the California-based Home Building Center.

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Cold winters and the consequent need for tight, energy-efficient housing by people in one of the less-affluent states are the principal reason the build-your-own-home movement began in Maine. It followed quickly in California with its benign climate and relatively affluent society because property values have skyrocketed there in a way they have nowhere else.

The house fetching $50,000 in Maine would go onto the market at more than $ 100,000 in southern Califrornia. In both states, then, economics is the motivating force behind the trend. It's the same nationwide.

Instructors at owner-builder schools agree: ''If they (the majority of students) didn't build their own, they'd be renting.''

But there are other reasons as well. Many who could afford to buy a standard home realize that they can get much more for their money by building it themselves. Still others don't like the type of home the construction industry is offering.

Rather, they want a home that fits what they see as the approaching post-industrial era - a structure that is not an energy glutton. Still others seek the feeling of independance that a knowledge of home building brings.

''We offer an alternative to people who had just about given up the idea of ever owning their own home,'' says Robert Roskind, co-founder of the Owner Builder Center in Berkeley.

''We do much more than teach people how to build a house,'' says Charlie Wing who, with Pat and Patsy Hennin, founded the Shelter Institute in 1974 and moved out two years later to begin Cornerstones.

"We get them thinking deeply about just what a house is and what they want from it. In particular, we show them how to build a structure that won't cost the earth to live in once it's up. It will be largely maintenance-free and will cost pennies to heat and cool where tract houses currently cost dollars.''

As Pat Hennin puts it: ''Society has led people to believe that they are dummies, that building houses is beyond them. We show them that it is not. People are a lot more capable than they believe.''

Hennin even startles his classes by telling them that they can build better houses than the professionals. The reason, he contends, is simple: Owners build houses to live in; contractors build houses to stay in business.

Patsy Hennin points out that owner-builders can readily cut construction costs in half and sometimes more.

''If students have only $7,000, we teach them how to get a house for that amount. Or they can build for $80,000 or $140,000, whatever.''

Wing, a former physicist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, lectured at Bowdoin College on the ''Art of the House'' in 1970. It was the response to the Bowdoin lectures by townsfolk who sat in on the course that showed Wing the need of a school for would-be owner-builders - and he coined the term Shelter Institute.

Pat Hennin, a lawyer by profession but a practical builder as well, had come to a similar conclusion. When the two met it seemed natural that the school be founded. When they split two years later it was not over any differences in teaching methods but over management of the business.

While Cornerstones and Shelter remain in Maine, the Owner-Builder Center on the West Coast is in the process of training others to open similar schools in the very near future.

Building confidence is the key theme in all schools. In most cases, the neophyte home builders are surprised, pleasantly so, by their own growing confidence and ability.

Both the Kennedys (Shelter Institute students) and the Erdmans (students of Cornerstones) say they would not have tackled their respective projects without the training they received and the self-confidence it inspired.

The Kennedys ran a screen-printing business in Massachusetts before moving to Maine; Mr. Erdman is in banking and Mrs. Erdman is a schoolteacher, hardly professions that equip people for home construction.

I attended three weeks of intensive training at the Cornerstones owner-builder school last summer.

One day of theory and discussion in the classroom was followed by a day of hands-on instruction in which the class erected a new wing (under the direction of professional carpenters) onto an existing house.

Under the program confidence did indeed bloom rapidly.

Most students (many of them couples) ended the course convinced that they could and would build their own homes. Some, with house-building no longer a mystery but with time constraints on their hands, said they planned to subcontract much of the construction. But a majority said they hoped to do most of the work themselves.

For my part, I plan to build a new house aided by a student from the Shelter Institute. Currently, I am helping him build his home. Before taking the course so vast a project would have been unthinkable. Now I know it is not beyond me. The prospect is exciting, to say the least.

If you are interested in enrolling in one of the owner-builder courses, contact:

Cornerstones, 54 Cumberland Street, Brunswick, Maine 04011. Phone: (207) 729- 0540.

Heartwood Owner-Builder School, Johnson Road, Washington, Mass. 01235. Phone: (413) 623-6677.

The Owner Builder Center, 1824 4th Street, Berkeley, Calif. 94710. Phone: ( 415) 848-5951.

Shelter Institute, Bath, Maine 04530. Phone: (207) 442-7938.

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