The House That Students Build

The House That Students Build

Local students construct $2.15 million home in McLean.

It’s a $2.15 million classroom.

With more than 6,300 square feet of space, students have plenty of room to get comfortable — not that they ever do, though. They’re working.

In the past two-and-a-half years, more than 70 students from eight high schools in Fairfax County helped construct a massive new brick home in McLean, featuring five bedrooms, a library, four full baths, three half baths, three wood and gas fireplaces, and a three-car garage. The home will be sold later this month. While the asking price is $2.15 million, it may fetch even more.

“When we got here, there were no walls or anything,” said Chris Brooks, a student at Chantilly High School who has worked on the house for two years in construction technology class. “Now it looks like a house.”

IN THE LAST 30 years, students in the county have had the chance to get real construction work experience, building 17 homes in McLean as part of Fairfax County Public Schools’ residential construction program.

“This is the biggest house to date,” said Chad Maclin, who runs the program, which is a partnership between the county and the Foundation for Applied Technical Education (FATE). Maclin, the FCPS trade and industry coordinator, is also the executive director of FATE.

“It’s the school system’s land, and FATE provides the building materials,” said Maclin. “There’s a profit-sharing [between the county and FATE] that’s rolled back into the program so we can continue to build houses.”

Students in the class work on just about every aspect of building the home, but they also work on other facets of the job. They submit a job application, clock in and clock out, fill out tax forms and get interviewed.

“We teach students about the industry from the ground up,” said Maclin.

And their work isn’t free. “The class motto is ‘Earn while you learn,'” said Maclin. Students aren’t paid for 100 percent of their time, but they are compensated, starting at $8.50 per hour, which is $3.35 above the state minimum wage. Second-year students can apply for a promotion and be paid up to $9.50 an hour.

ON HIS FIRST day at the site two years ago, Taylor Naleppa, a senior at Oakton High School, was thrown into the fire. “We were doing concrete and digging,” he said. “The whole time I was swinging a sledge hammer, for like six hours.” Despite blistering his hands and being extremely sore the next day, Naleppa stuck with the program.

“I’ve done everything from framing to finishing,” said Naleppa, who works on the house about 10 to 12 hours a week. “I’m proud of the work. It’s a great experience.”

Brooks agreed. “We get to do stuff and learn stuff that we can actually use,” he said.

Marcial Rubio, who teaches construction technology and residential construction at the site, oversees the students. “All the framing, all the wiring, all the floors, most of the drywall — everything that’s been done on this house, the kids have had their hands in it,” said Rubio. “They do the theory first in the classroom, then this is the lab.”

MANY STUDENTS WHO got their start in the program can sometimes find their way back.

Ron Zacharias, one of the professional electricians working on the house, graduated from the program five years ago. “It gave me my start,” said Zacharias, who graduated from Robinson Secondary School. “It taught me everything I know, pretty much.” Now Zacharias is passing on his knowledge to another class of students interested in various construction professions.

Students interested in careers as builders, contractors, electricians, plumbers, masons, architects and construction managers have found a home in the program.

“I have one kid who wants to be a green architect,” said Rubio, who’s been in construction for more than 20 years. “I have another who wants to work for a design and build firm.”

BUT IN A PROGRAM like this, safety comes first, said Rubio. The students, who are always wearing hard hats, have received the message loud and clear.

“There’s two weeks before we do anything because of the safety program,” said Naleppa, who plans to study construction management in college and then start his own construction company. “We’re learning life skills you can always use for the rest of your life because people are always doing home improvement.”

Adrien Laffitte, 17, a student at Oakton who has also been in the program the past two years, already has outside clients because of the experience. A few months ago, Laffitte fixed some drywall for his grandmother. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t taken this class,” said Laffitte. “My grandmother said her reference is available,” he said, laughing.

Walter Wimberly, a student at Edison High School, hung new fixtures at his grandmother’s house. “I also do a lot of stuff at my own place,” said Wimberly, who has planned a career in the trades.

IN THE FALL, the program is moving to Springfield, where construction begins on a 13.5-acre parcel. A total of 18 homes are planned for the plot. “We’re going to be doing a house per year,” said Maclin.

Because of proximity, West Springfield, Lee, Hayfield, Edison, Lake Braddock and South County high schools will likely have the most student participants in the program, said Maclin.

“Any student can participate, but geography and traffic sometimes dictate that,” said Maclin.

“I think that it’s neat that the county gives the kids an opportunity to do this,” Steve Palese, a teacher in the program for 17 years. “That’s what it’s all about — giving them an opportunity.”

Already they can say they worked on a $2.15 million home, said Palese.

The house they built at 1201 Artnauman Court will be listed for sale by Long & Foster Realtors on Feb. 10. An open house is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 21, from 2-4 p.m.