‘If you lean down, you bump into something, and you will have an accident’
Aileen Nelson and her son, Trevor, have always enjoyed the feeling of building something up that looks like nothing. The mother-son team has crafted more than 120 houses in the past several years. Some of them are six stories high, constructed like a towering version of Lark Holland’s “Capricorn” drawings. Some are two stories high, yet appear to be just inches away from being flimsy.
Nelson has several favorite projects — both the cranes and the oars. When building her new 757-foot, three-bedroom house in Chevy Chase this summer, it was her son who led the charge. Nelson watched him work around a blue-lipped crane forklift that sits on the cab, bending and twisting the metal like a monstrous forklift. Trevor, a construction estimator, also helped plan the layout — the roof, bathrooms, fireplaces, the sunroom. When Nelson got tired of welding, she tucked into the shadow of her father’s workbench and served as his helper.
Nelson began her career at Johns Hopkins University as a child. But after graduating with a degree in English, she quit and started her own business helping people build houses. By 1986, Nelson was managing her own company and realized she was more comfortable giving recommendations than directing men.
She began working with her son on his first project, a 2,000-square-foot house in Cape Cod. “When I first built him his first home, it was like, ‘Wow, can you imagine if I came to you and said, ‘You need a shade tree for your front porch?’ ” Nelson said.
When building the Cape Cod house in 1985, Trevor and his father were using some design techniques they had heard about in the industry. While developing them, they listened to manuals they found on the radio. To stay on top of construction standards, Trevor and his father often looked up information online. They made sure they got approved building permits from the county in advance, including one for Nelson to drive over a levee line to make sure her house met state code.
In 1996, Trevor purchased the trademark for “Mr. Rearview,” a column he designed to promote a safe lifestyle. Trevor and his father met in elementary school in Cape Cod. Growing up, Nelson used to challenge Trevor to arm wrestling matches. Trevor broke the record for one of the competitions, but when Nelson took him up on the challenge again, Trevor beat her.
Nelson and Trevor sometimes compete together on websites where they post information about house building and construction. “We love each other as a team,” Nelson said. “We had our ups and downs. Trevor and I have had arguments. I don’t let any disagreements get too heated because those are true conversations. You’re not worried about what other people think of you.”
Once, Nelson and Trevor were working on a house in Abingdon, Maryland, when Nelson accidentally leaned a portion of her house into a building coming into its own. Nelson soon realized she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was just leaning into something. As far as she knew, there were no rules against leaning.
At that moment, she realized how bad a construction accident could be. For Nelson, this lesson was a wake-up call for House-A-Thon, her organization that helps homebuyers prepare their properties for sale. Nelson and her staff have a weekly safety class called “Land-Saving” for people looking to build homes.
To Nelson, the safest bet is to lean on builders with similar goals and involve them from the beginning, not the end. In this way, Nelson has found these dueling community members helping her make her homes.
“If you lean down, you bump into something, and you will have an accident,” Nelson said. “I have to just move from one angle to the next, and I have to really stick to the process. If you go off the track, that’s where things happen.”