- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Home remodeler David Foster is solving two problems at once. He evaluates the skills of apprentice carpenters by having them build playhouses which he then donates to area preschools. Mr. Foster is president of Foster Home Improvement Inc. in Lorton, Va. Before he sends carpenters to hammer and saw in a client's home, he wants to make sure his employees are well trained.
"I started the playhouse program to assess the skills of newly hired carpenters," says the remodeler, who does about $3 million in business a year, with the average job costing about $100,000. "I give them a blueprint. They make a list of materials. They start building, and we try to see where their skills are."
Mr. Foster's program is unique to the national remodeling industry, which makes $140 billion a year in revenue. Most apprentice carpenters learn solely under the supervision of lead carpenters. Since homeowners want craftspeople with a high level of skill, Mr. Foster implements further testing through the playhouses. The more innovative the worker, the better the finished product.
Carpenters whose skills do not measure up while they work on a playhouse are let go. Mr. Foster tested four persons through the first two playhouses that were built. As a result, only two carpenters have been permanently hired.
"The theory is hopefully they will stay with us," says Mr. Foster, who began his company in 1983 and in 1998 was selected one of the top 50 remodelers in the United States by Remodeling magazine.
"Everyone you interview says they can do everything. The first man who worked on the second playhouse was let go because his skills and attitude weren't what we needed. Hopefully, we will be putting a qualified person in people's homes."
When evaluating a carpenter's work on a playhouse, Mr. Foster considers the overall quality of the labor, including the hours it took to complete the task, the amount of material waste involved and how much guidance was needed from outside sources.
"Through this process, we get a good idea of the person's work ethic," Mr. Foster says. "Do they waste time? How many breaks do they take? We can compare one employee against another."
Helping build a playhouse is not the only test new carpenters must pass. Mr. Foster makes them complete a 100-question written test and a personality profile. He also places them with a lead carpenter for a period of time.
"If someone messes up a playhouse, it's not the end of the world," Mr. Foster says. "The worst case is that we tear
one up and rebuild what needs to be redone. It's not like messing up someone's home. This industry is known for problems and discrepancies. It doesn't have a very good reputation. We're trying to be diligent about our blueprints and projects."
John Mullins of Luray, Va., is one of the carpenters who passed the playhouse program. He finished a playhouse that another employee started. The company only has space to build one at a time.
Mr. Mullins is now working on installing a third floor on a two-story townhouse in Alexandria. He has worked for Mr. Foster for about eight months.
"I worked on the playhouse for about three weeks," Mr. Mullins says. "I worked on the roof and the structure. I did the cosmetics on the outside. I installed the flooring."
Phillip Mullen of Fredericksburg, Va., completed Mr. Foster's first playhouse all by himself, which took about 160 hours to build and deliver. He is now a lead carpenter, working on such home additions as bathrooms and kitchens.
"Building the playhouse was basic simple carpentry," Mr. Mullen says. "The hardest thing was building the roof. You have to lay out the rafters by hand. It was a fun little project. I wouldn't mind doing some more of them. It was very enjoyable. It was a fine contribution to the community for the kids. I have three kids of my own. I wish I had built them one when they were younger. They are in high school now."

Before Mr. Foster had the first playhouse built in January 2001, he asked area preschools what criteria the playhouses would have to meet for insurance purposes. To fulfill their needs, he designed structures that are 11 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet high with a window on each side and splinter-free materials. Since children often catch their hands in doors, he designs the playhouses without any.
"We used plastic lumber on the porch floor," he said. "It's maintenance free so it won't decay. The windows open for ventilation."
In February 2001, Mr. Foster donated the first playhouse, the one built by Mr. Mullen, to Mulford School in Centreville, Va., which his 6-year-old son Nicholas attended. Nicholas is now in first grade at Clifton Elementary School in Clifton, Va. Mr. Foster's 10-year-old daughter, Bailey, also took horseback riding classes at Mulford School.
Beverley Mulford, owner of Mulford School, says she is grateful for the addition to her school's outside play area. About 40 children attend the preschool.
"The kids really do enjoy it," she says. "It's a lovely little house. It's well built. It's perfect. There's a little table with four chairs inside. Comfortably, six children can fit inside it."
The current playhouse under construction will be donated to Common Ground Child Care in Reston. Mr. Foster likes to give the playhouses to established schools with 25 or more students. The main obstacle preventing Mr. Foster from building more playhouses is money. He would like to build four or five a year.
For the first two playhouses, MidSouth Building Supply in Springfield and Ken:Signs in Springfield donated some of the materials needed. Cardinal Bank in Fairfax, Pallone Chevrolet in Springfield and Reliabuild in Chantilly, Va., made financial contributions.
Mike Laitinen, sales representative at MidSouth Building Supply, says his company donated replacement windows and siding to the projects.
"It was a great opportunity to help Dave out," he says. "I saw the playhouses while under construction and upon competition. They looked great. They looked just like miniature houses."
Ken Logsdon, owner of Ken:Signs, says he made the signs listing the donors for the exterior of the playhouses.
"It's a great idea to train someone on something that children could use and have fun with in the future," Mr. Logsdon says. "David Foster is a good friend of mine and a longtime client. One of his trademarks is quality craftsmanship."
Foster Home Improvement spent $9,910 on the two playhouses, Mr. Foster says. "For the first one, we paid $4,873," he says. "About $2,000 per playhouse has been donated by other sponsors."
LittleAcorn Patch Preschool, in Springfield and Kingston,Va., wants a playhouse. The owners approached Mr. Foster about raising money to cover extra expenses.
"If people are willing to do that, it cuts our costs in half," Mr. Foster says. "Our intention isn't to sell the playhouses. I'd love to have other people who see the donations as worthwhile donate to the cause."
Mr. Foster is considering marketing the playhouse program across the country to other remodelers to train their carpenters.
"It's very hard to truly evaluate the skills of tradespeople," he says. "It's proven worthwhile for us, and maybe it could be for someone else."

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