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Building Confidence



Published February 23, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

The imaginary woman depicted on Amber Wiggett's business card is wearing a polka-dot scarf on her head and flexing the muscles of one arm. It's Rosie the Riveter, who symbolized the female industrial workforce that took over while men were fighting overseas during World War II. For the 26-year-old Plainfield resident, this image represents the essence of Homemakers Ecological Construction, a company she founded in 2003 that boasts its employees' diversity. A brochure enumerates the enterprise's commitment to "women, mothers, trans and gay people, low-income people, young people [and] small people."

At just over 5-feet-4-inches tall, Wiggett is a petite entrepreneur with big ideals. "Empowerment," a key word in her vocabulary, means demystifying the construction trade for anyone who wants to learn it. In fact, her crew resists specialization by learning the entire range of skills. They use traditional methods: Old-fashioned pegs are preferable to nails, for instance. In keeping with the worldwide sustainability movement, their materials are environment-friendly and often recycled for building or renovating structures at affordable rates.

Wiggett shares a cozy apartment in a century-old firehouse with her boyfriend Ben Graham. On a mid-February afternoon, sunlight streams through the windows and illuminates the telltale signs of her occupation: The floors are sprinkled with wood shavings tracked in from the Homemakers workshop downstairs. Like Rosie the Riveter -- an Arlington teenager was Norman Rockwell's model for the 1943 prototype drawing -- Wiggett is a native Vermonter flexing some physical and emotional muscle. But finding fulfillment has meant battling a few personal demons.

SEVEN DAYS: Were you interested in this kind of thing at an early age?

AMBER WIGGETT: Well, I was a tomboy always kind of building forts. I grew up in Randolph.

SD: What was your family like?

AW: I have three brothers and three sisters. My biological dad managed a greeting-card company. My mom raised dogs. My stepfather's an electrician. But when I was young, I really just wanted to get away from Vermont.

SD: Did you accomplish that?

AW: Yes. In 1996, I spent a year at the Maine College of Art in Portland. Then I went to Athens, Georgia, because it's got a lively arts scene. I painted and had some exhibits in small galleries, but moved to Providence after a year. I would sneak into drawing classes at the Rhode Island School of Design.

SD: How long did you stay there?

AW: Less than a year.

SD: You were restless?

AW: I was curious and adventurous. Around that time, I began to feel inspired about sustainable and organic living ideas. I returned to Portland for a year and a half and took care of two foster children. Adolescent boys.

SD: How old were you?

AW: Nineteen. I saved enough money to buy 40 acres in Brownington, Vermont. My boyfriend and I moved back here in the summer of 1999 to live on the land. In the winter, I did foster care in Colchester. I found a little book in the library on building your own earthen home. We also brought a teacher up from Massachusetts to give a one-week natural-construction workshop for about a dozen people. And then we spent two summers building a hybrid house.

SD: What does that mean?

AW: Part of it was cob, which is a combination of sand, clay and straw that's very much like adobe. It had a roundwood timber frame with logs from our property that hadn't been milled. The rest was strawbale. The roof was sheet metal. We had passive solar.

SD: How big a place?

AW: Tiny but efficiently designed. Very cute and hobbity.

SD: Sounds heavenly. Why did you leave?

AW: My partner and I broke up mid-construction. I finished it myself and lived there for three consecutive seasons.

SD: That sounds like an unusually long stretch for you. Where did you go next?

AW: Findhorn, Scotland. I was there for a few months teaching and doing carpentry. I came back to Vermont in the fall of 2001 and lived in Brownington again, then Monkton. I started a business, Handywoman Carpentry. I visited California to teach a women's timber-framing workshop. I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Natural Building Convergence in Oregon. During three weeks in Portland, I built an urban sauna with a sod roof at someone's home.

SD: With all that relocating, when did you realize this was your profession?

AW: The moment I wanted it was the moment I organized that workshop in Brownington. In California, it seemed as if I was wanted by the natural-building community. After returning to Vermont in 2002, I co-founded SpiralWorks with my partner Ben Graham. It's a nonprofit that does education and advocacy for sustainable-living systems.

SD: How is that different from your other company?

AW: Homemakers is a for-profit construction business that empowers people no matter their gender, size or sexual orientation. None of the girls on my crew had any building experience when we started.

SD: Would you ever hire men?

AW: We wouldn't necessarily exclude them if they accept our goals, but our first year has been about creating a safe bubble for people who aren't usually welcomed in this business.

SD: What sort of jobs have you tackled?

AW: This past summer, our first project was a 1200-square-foot strawbale and timber-frame house in Tunbridge based on my architectural design. We were the contractors doing it all: the plastering, the roofing, the earthen adobe floors, the insulation, the custom-framed windows. The owner brought in an outside plumber, and my stepfather, Herm Ashline, helped with the electrical.

SD: The cold must keep you indoors now.

AW: We have up to seven people in the warmer months. A core of four stays with me all year. We've done remodeling, painting and finishing jobs, including at the Langdon Street Cafe in Montpelier. Our paints are all natural, some of them made with milk.

SD: Have you settled down?

AW: This winter, I emerged from three years of terrible depression and an eating disorder. Now I'm really confident about what we can do. It's enriching and feeds me personally, but also makes a difference in the greater scheme of things. And we have fun. We get ridiculous, silly and playful. It's our own little workplace culture.

SD: How has your family reacted to having an unconventional daughter?

AW: They're mostly supportive. My grandparents are totally bewildered, of course. "Transgender" was a new concept for them. My biological dad calls us Amber and the Amazonians.