April 4, 2017
Joyce Schoeppach did something that many people dream about. She did something that some people talk about and plan for, but never accomplish.
Joyce Schoeppach built her own house. With her own hands. It was 1989 and it took her a year and a half. She enlisted the help of many friends—Schoeppach says it was probably about 100—and she hired a few professionals, including an architect, electrician and plumber, partly for consultation and partly because county regulations required it.
But the rest? All her. The framing. Laying the hardwood floors and tile. Building stonework. Hanging cabinets. Designing many of the doors and windows.
“I was probably about 30 years old when I decided I wanted to build a house,” says Schoeppach, now 75. “Both my grandfathers built their own houses. There’s a certain physical aptitude you have to have. I was a really good athlete, and I was 5’9” and strong. I knew I could do it.”
She grew up in Flint, Mich. Her father was a tool and die maker who eventually became a general foreman in a General Motors factory and her mother was a nurse. She described her childhood as “magical.” As a ninth grader, she began playing badminton and soon became a champion in badminton doubles. In her 30s, she took up rugby but had to stop when she was injured. In the last nine months, she has had a hip and a knee replacement. “I’m starting to get my swagger back,” she said with a laugh.
She went to college, majored in sociology and went to work as a social worker in Detroit. “That was a very hard job and very sad,” Schoeppach says. “I only lasted three years.” She later got a job as a recreation instructor for Detroit and ran classes, tournaments and the summer swim program.
Not long after, she moved to Gettsyburg, Penn., with her partner. With the dream of becoming a carpenter in the back of her mind, she went to work for someone starting up a construction company. After a 15-minute lesson on installing baseboards and doors, she went out on jobs, earning up to $100 a day. She learned more by devouring books on home repair. She even started her own small construction company at one point, employing five people. Even though she had never run a company before, much less owned one, she says she “picked it up as I went along.”
“When I was a little kid, if I couldn’t do something, I would say ‘I can’t do it!’ and my grandmother would say, ‘Little Joyce, can’t never did anything!’ That’s like wisdom. If you think you can do, maybe you can do it. If you think you can’t, you can’t.”
Schoeppach was hired to work for MCPS 37 years ago as a carpenter. She applied after being encouraged by an MCPS teacher who told her the system was looking to hire tradeswomen.
Tell me about your first job at MCPS and what you do in your current job.
I was hired in maintenance as the first field tradeswoman in MCPS. I was in a department with 78 men.
We were called commercial carpenters. Back then, we did lots of things—fixed bleachers, built cabinets. We built roofs over doors. We went up on roofs and repaired rotten wood. We repaired stairs. Now, many things are contracted out.
While I was in maintenance, I took some classes at Montgomery College—reading architectural plans, a CAD (computer-aided design) class, drawing, and drafting.
I had taken the carpentry test, but I was still learning carpentry. I missed passing the test by two questions. The rule then was you could take the test again in two weeks. There were 100 questions on the test, so I went out and studied the 32 questions I wasn’t sure of. I went back, took the test again and passed it.
I eventually became the supervisor of the renovation shop. At that time, I oversaw 23 men who worked in six trades—plumbers, roofers, electricians, carpenters, masons and painters.
They eventually disbanded the renovation shop because we lost our funding. Dick Hawes, who was director of Facilities Management, decided to bring me into construction. They called me the in-house project coordinator; I was overseeing contractors and I was working with architects to design as well.
That’s still what I’m doing; they call me a contracts assistant. I manage small jobs and larger jobs up to $1 million. Today, I went out to North Bethesda [Middle School]; they want an extra art room. I went out with the planner to see what they need, what’s practical and what’s not.
One of my first projects was at Summit Hall [Elementary School]; we did an addition with an elevator and two classrooms. Last year, I oversaw the renovation of the science wing at Banneker [Middle School]. We have a cafeteria in the basement here [45 W. Gude Dr.] It had been gutted. I managed that project to build that out.
We keep getting more and more students, so we get more requests to add or change spaces. All the new programs need learning spaces.
What do you like best about your job?
I like a couple things. Education is so important. The spaces that are used to educate make a huge difference in the children’s attitudes and the teachers’ attitudes. In my own way, I’m helping educate people by creating better spaces for them to teach and to learn in. I hear what people want and try to give them what they need.
The other thing I like is that I get to show everybody what women can do, including the children. That’s huge. Many years ago, when I was a carpenter and I would have a job in one of the special schools, I’ve had teachers ask whether their classes can watch as I worked. I’ve had a teacher ask if I would come to a lunch bunch, tell students what I did and answer questions. I’ve gotten back some lovely letters. Two in particular I remember. They said, ‘Now I know I can be whatever I want to be.’ and ‘You give me the courage to realize I can do whatever I want to do.’ I still have them.
What is the biggest challenge with your job?
I have the summer to get projects done before the doors open in the fall. There are so many variables in construction—things that turn up, things that don’t happen, extra needs that come up. There’s a million things coming at you and you’ve got to fix it now. Sometimes, it’s space that needs to be reconfigured or renovated, or it might be a new addition.
Last summer, there were 65 schools where I had something to do. Some of them are small jobs, but some of them are million-dollar jobs.
How did it come about that you built your own house?
I wanted to live in Takoma Park and I wanted to live in the woods. I was literally driving down the street with a friend and we saw a For Sale sign. We drove up the driveway and I fell in love. It was an undeveloped piece of land, an acre of woods.
It was perfect for me. I was never going to find another piece of land like that, not in Takoma Park. My father had just died, and my mother needed to not live alone anymore. I was building it for her and me.
During the Depression, the property had been owned by a developer, who had subdivided it into lots. The land was very wide because it had been a farm. Then, there was an acre of woods there. He tried to build five houses on it and the neighborhood kept him from doing it. He eventually sold it to three brothers; they wanted to build six houses on it.
I only wanted to build one house, but there was a long community history of people not wanting any building there. Seventeen people’s land abutted my property. It took a year. Everybody in Takoma Park had an opinion; it was probably 50 percent for me and 50 percent against. Some neighbors told me I couldn’t build because there was a stormwater management problem on the property. So I had to pay someone $5,000 for a stormwater management plan. Others said I was going to take down a bunch of trees; only one diseased tree came down.
After about a year, I was approved to build. I was granted a yearlong sabbatical from work to build the house.
I had to get an architect to draw up plans. The house is about 3,500 square feet. It’s a tri-level house; it steps down a hill. I mobilized a group of about 100 friends to help me. I had all kinds of people—friends, family, my chiropractor, my dentist, some of the neighbors. It took us about a year and a half.
I had a friend who came to survey the land; it turned out the ground dropped more than we thought it would. We were going to build a woodworking shop in the basement, but we dug the stairwell out by hand. It took us a week of digging, eight hours a day, putting it in a wheelbarrow and hauling it away.
The house has a woodworking shop, two bedrooms, two and a half baths, a studio; it could be a fine arts studio or a bedroom with a sleeping loft. It’s got three decks and 11 outdoor exits.
I had an electrician. You have to hire a licensed plumber. The framing I did with my friends. I put down the hardwood floors. I did some electrical. I laid tile. I did the stonework behind a wood-burning stove. I made some of the doors and windows. A guy who worked for me built the side cabinets; I hung them. We put up the trusses; they spanned 30 feet or so. We installed the shingles. The shingles came in 100-pound packs, so we brought in a conveyer belt to drop the bundles on the roof. I built some of the furniture for the house, mostly cabinets, tables, some of the interior doors, nothing very complicated.
The only part that really surprised me was, before we got permission to build, we had to find the storm sewer on the property. There were no records of it. So, the three brothers who sold me the house and I were out there with shovels trying to find it.
[The whole project] amazed me. I was awed by it. After I’d get done for the day, I would just stand in the driveway and look at it. I was never overwhelmed. I was determined. If I hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have happened.
It’s art I created. How much better can it get? … It was a wonderful adventure.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I love to cook. My mom’s recipe for potato salad won a potato salad contest here [in construction].
I love spending time with my friends. I love music. I play Scrabble online. I like to garden.
I have a herd of deer on my property that I feed. I cleared a hill recently and planted apple trees on it for the deer. Did you know that if you sing to deer, they will stay and listen?