NEAR NEVADA CITY, Calif. — Amy West sat with her feet up on the weathered table, nursing a diet soda and a throbbing left hand.
It had been a rough three weeks for her and her husband, Brian. They had known virtually nothing about how to build a house when they left their home in Santa Monica and arrived at this rustic camp in the foothills of the Sierra.
But within days, the Wests were pouring cement, laying tile, installing electrical wiring and walking atop 25-foot-high rafters as they and about 20 others built a custom home in a pine-laced forest about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento.
"It's been hard work sometimes, but it's been a blast," said Amy West, rubbing the finger she had accidently whacked earlier with a 2-pound hammer. "Where else can you go on vacation and learn to build a home at the same time?"
Welcome to the Owner Builder Summer Camp, the only place in the West where anyone willing to swing a hammer and wield a saw can learn how to build a house from the ground up or remodel one they already own.
The camp was started in 1980 by the Owner Builder Center, a Berkeley-based nonprofit group that offers building and remodeling classes. Although the center runs one-day seminars and ongoing night classes in the Bay Area year-round, its mountain camp runs from mid-June through late August--prime home-building season in the Sierra.
The camp is held at the John Woolman School, a pine-covered, 300-acre Quaker boarding school about 8 miles west of Nevada City. The Owner Builder Center rents the facility during the summer months when the Quaker students are on vacation.
Each student home builder signs up for one, two or three weeks at the camp. At a recent session, ages of the students ranged from 14 to 70.
"We get students from all walks of life," said Richard Drace, the camp's low-key director who also runs his own residential-design business in Nevada City.
"Some people who come don't know how to hold a hammer, while others are skilled in one or two particular trades. Most of the students fall somewhere in between."
The students also have different reasons for attending.
The Wests came hoping to learn enough about remodeling so they could save money by buying a fixer-upper. Mari Kitahara of San Diego figured what she learned about building would improve her skills in the construction-litigation business.
Joe Bert of Fremont, recently retired from a high-technology firm, dreams of one day building his own retirement home in the mountains. A few younger students hope to build their own homes and beat the high cost of housing in urban areas.
Then there's Tim Harrold, who came all the way from Indiana. "I figure I'll learn enough here so I can get a job in the construction business," he said.
The types of structures that are built by the students can vary from one year to the next. Although the primary project each year is usually a single-family home, past years' students have built everything from garages to barns.
Sites Near Camp
Through a series of lectures, workshops and on-site job experience, students have a chance to learn all the tasks involved in more than a dozen different building trades--all the various skills needed to build a home from the ground up.
Students worked on two projects at this year's camp, which ended late last month. The main project was a handsome, three-bedroom new home; the second was a major remodel of a tiny mountain retreat, which included the addition of a recreation room and outside deck.
The homes are usually located within a few miles of the camp on sites owned by individuals. Part of the money these property owners pay for the services of the students and their instructors is used to defray the cost of running the summer camp.
One weeklong course is devoted to building the concrete foundation and floor framing. Students build the frame for the walls and roof in another week, as well as install windows and the basic electrical and plumbing systems.
Students learn "finish work" in a third one-week module--how to build and mount cabinets, hang doors, install ceramic tile and dry wall.
Some students come for just a single week to learn a specific set of skills. But most stay for all three--or take the alternative "15-day intensive" course, which emphasizes more on-site work--to learn all the aspects of building a home.
Each of the courses is repeated three times during the summer, which means the five or six instructors who take part every year rarely have more than seven or eight students each.
The weeklong courses cost about $600 each, a price that students like to joke includes "tuition, room, board and blisters." Discounts are provided to couples, people who stay for more than one week and those willing to camp or prepare their own meals.