WLAA Student Home Builders Series: Group of local builders, business leaders laid the foundation of a remarkable program 50 years ago

WeLoveAnnArbor.com is presenting a series of articles throughout the year on the Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program. With the help and support of instructors Mark Valchine and Grant Welch, WeLoveAnnArbor.com will follow the process from start to finish, charting the progress along the way.

Henry Landau said it best: “Even in our wildest expectations, I don’t know that anyone could have imagined that three decades later we would still be operating and training the future leaders of our industry.”

Fifty years since the first shovel hit the dirt or the first hammer smashed a nail, the Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program is not only still operating, but is still teaching students skills they will take with them for the rest of their lives – no matter what field they choose.

The longevity of the program and how it’s not only grown but prospered – students of the class are now recruited because of how well trained they are – is a credit to the men and women who laid the foundation. Like a good building, the foundation is the key and everything rises from there.

The Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program is a class of high school students from Ann Arbor who spend the school year building a house from hammering that first nail to putting the “for sale” sign on the front lawn. Divided into two classes (morning and afternoon), one instructor known as the “coach” and his assistant, along with a long list of volunteers and support staff which make up the board of directors called The Ann Arbor Student Building

Industry Program, help guide the 30 students through the entire process.

It started in 1968 with an idea and a phone call.     

While the Beatles were at the peak of their popularity and the Tigers were on their way to a World Series title, Earl Shaffer contacted Landau about the possibility of beginning a program that would involve high school students building a house.

Shaffer was a consultant for Vocational Education for the Washtenaw County Intermediate School District. Landau was a well-known local homebuilder and then President of the Washtenaw County Association of Contractors. Shaffer and Landau then started pitching the idea and soon discovered plenty of enthusiasm and support for the project.


One of their first stops was with the Washtenaw County Association of Contractors. The idea was simple – promoting a community sponsored training program for high school students interested in learning something about the building trades, specifically related to residential construction.

Across town, Jim Weldon with Ann Arbor Federal Savings and Loan had been instructed by his employer, Roy Weber, to have the bank become involved in a community service project. Weldon was friends with Landau and the two began turning the idea into reality.

Jack Wheatley, business manager of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 190 and president of the local Building Trades Council, which was comprised of all 20 major building trades unions, was soon on board.

Like many great ideas, there were early challenges to overcome. Just coordinating the idea with the many factors necessary proved to be difficult and time consuming. 

In the fall of 1969, the formal discussions to begin the program were under way and a voluntary Ad-Hoc Committee was formed which included all facets of the construction industry. This committee’s top priority was figuring out how to take a profit-making enterprise, the building of a house for sale, and turn it into a learning experience that would provide the necessary instruction and involvement for students eager to learn more about the building trades. 

After a game plan was devised, Landau, Shaffer, Wheatley and Weldon made a presentation to the Ann Arbor School Board requesting the opportunity to begin the program. 

On April 22, 1970, the Ann Arbor School Board approved the project. And a non-profit corporation, for the purpose of owning and financing the projects, was formed and the Ann Arbor Student Home Building Project had officially gone from idea to reality.

The corporation’s Board of Directors became the financial and technical coordinators for the project. They gave and secured from others, remarkable amounts of free time and materials, plus cash contributions. 

On Sept. 9, 1970, at a building site at 3377 Yellowstone Drive, a groundbreaking ceremony was held and the first student home building project was under way. There were 26 students from Pioneer and Huron high schools who saw the project through to completion with the assistance of local journeymen, craftsmen and the supervision of the “Builder of Record,” Henry Landau. 

Robert Haddick was the first instructor for the program. The students participated in every phase of the construction.  

Warren McLean of Warren McLean Associates listed the home and sold it for no commission. The home sold before it was completed.