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Sold: 4-Bedroom House, Built by Students

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In about six months, Mel and Jessie Holguin hope to be settled in a new colonial-style house, which is now under construction not more than three miles from their current home in McLean, Va.

For the Holguins, the house, which is valued at $235,000, represents less of a climb in social standing than a step toward independence for their 14-year-old handicapped son.

The four-bedroom house will have wider-than-usual hallways and doors, special ramps to accommodate Abel Holquin's wheelchair, and an additional bedroom suite with an intercom system connected to other rooms in the house.

It also represents an advance of a different kind. When the project is completed, it will be the seventh house built by 11th- and 12th-grade vocational students from the Fairfax County Public Schools under the auspices of the Fairfax County Vocational Education Foundation, a nonprofit corporation, established in 1971. And the Holguins will be the seventh family to purchase the results of their handiwork.

But before that deal is struck, the students will be breaking ground in preparation for the next construction project, which will be undertaken during the 1983-84 school year.

Although many other school systems in the nation have initiated building projects that provide practical, on-the-job training for vocational students five days a week during the school year, Fairfax County officials say they believe their foundation's program is among the oldest in the nation, and perhaps the model for many others.

A spokesman for the American Vocational Association said that Fairfax County's program is unusual because its houses are expensive compared to the cost of real estate in other communities in the country.

The foundation is administered by a 25-member board of directors, representing 25 professional associations in the Northern Virginia area, according to Joseph T. Daly, director of foundation projects.

Each member serves a two-year term and brings a different expertise to the foundation's projects, Mr. Daly said. For example, he said, the foundation member from the Virginia Bar Association contributes guidance on legal matters, and the representative from the state bankers association helps obtain the loans the district needs to begin a project.

Private Donations

The foundation was initially established by private donations; construction materials and architectural, appraisal, and engineering services were either donated or bought with public contributions. Once the foundation was firmly established and a few construction projects had been completed, additional projects and land purchases were supported by the money produced from the sale of previous projects.

The quality of the students' work is assured through local ordinances and construction codes, which must be observed. The foundation's board members say that understanding zoning regulations and building procedures is also an integral part of the students' training.

In spite of the cost of the houses, the foundation has had only temporary problems finding buyers for them, according to Mr. Daly, while officials of similar programs in other communities have experienced long delays stemming from the poor economic climate. Mr. Daly attributes the foundation's success to careful planning and the continued housing demand in the Washington-metropolitan area.

"The foundation is a community gesture of people who are concerned and who care" about education, Mr. Daly explained. "We try to take as many civic jobs as we can to help the community."

One of the students' recent construction projects was an addition to a building at Wolf Trap Farm Park, the performing arts center located in Fairfax County and administered by the National Park Service. Wolf Trap's covered outdoor amphitheater was destroyed by fire last year, but performances have continued in temporary quarters at the park site.

The students also work on county park projects, according to Mr. Daly. "We have let [the community] know that we have the capability" of providing a variety of services, he added.

This year, more than 250 vocational students are participating in the foundation's various projects, which, according to Mr. Daly, also include a student-administered store at an area shopping mall and horticultural and landscaping services.

The students are drawn from 19 high school and four vocational centers throughout the county.

About 60 of those students are involved in building the Holquins' house, which is the third of 10 houses planned for an 11-acre site purchased three years ago by the foundation, Mr. Daly said.

In addition to their on-the-job training, the students also take non-vocational courses. While half of the students are working on the house, the others are taking English or social studies, or receiving special-education instruction in portable classrooms built by previous vocational students at the construction site.

Under this system, the students are still able to do the brick-laying, electrical wiring, and design drafting with the supervision of the vocational instructors while meeting local educational requirements. The foundation subcontracted with a local heating firm for some of the work on the houses, but the students were able to hook up the heating system under the supervision of their instructor, according to Mr. Daly.

"These students don't just provide labor," Mr. Daly said. "They are skilled and qualified to do all the work."

Normally, houses constructed by the students are available for sale on the open market, according to Mr. Daly. Since the students are not paid for their work, he said, building on commission for private home buyers would place private contractors at a disadvantage.

Special Challenge

The house being built for the Holquin family is an exception, according to Mr. Daly, because it posed a special challenge for the students. "We don't like to do things in competition with private contractors," Mr. Daly said. But, after consulting with the foundation's board members and several private contractors, the project was accepted because it gave the students an opportunity to build a modified house that is accessible for a handicapped person.

From the Holquins' perspective, the barrier-free house will make caring for their son less difficult. "It has not been easy," Ms. Holquin said, referring to the problems of maneuvering her son and his wheelchair in their current home.

Although students are taking longer to build the house than most private contractors would, Ms. Holquin said the wait is worth it. "We were told that it would take some time because when mistakes are made they must tear it out and start again," she said. "But I know it will be beautiful."

"If you see the meticulous quality," Mr. Daly said, "you'll find these houses are the best in Northern Virginia."

Area contractors know that the students have been trained under the best conditions, according to Mr. Daly. "These students will graduate into a market that will demand their skills," he added.


The work of Fairfax County's vocational students is closely supervised by instructors and is valued at more than $200,000.

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