Richard Whitney and his son Max climbed up the carpeted stairs and walked into the four-year-old's spacious new bedroom.

Richard Whitney and his son Max climbed up the carpeted stairs and walked into the four-year-old's spacious new bedroom.

"There's your room, buddy. Is it gonna be big enough for you, Max?" Whitney asked.

Max admired the room, its closet and the windows facing Grizzly Peak to the north as Whitney noted that his son's previous room was barely big enough for him to squeeze in.

Max will now have room to play with his toys in the house that Whitney helped build in the Rice Park affordable housing project next to Ashland's Dog Park off Nevada Street.

On Friday — Earth Day — families who helped build their own homes took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the completion of eight townhouses built to environmentally friendly Earth Advantage standards. Seven more homes are still under construction for phase two of the project.

It has been a grueling but rewarding 19 months of work for Louise McCullom, an Ashland caregiver who wielded the scissors at the ceremony. She works 40 hours each week, and the Mutual Self Help Housing program required that she and her friends and family contribute 32 hours of labor each week on construction.

McCullom put in 16 hours every week.

"I've lived in this valley for 25 years and this is my first home. I'm excited to own my own home," she said.

McCullom said the monthly mortgage payment for her 1,150-square-foot, two-bedroom townhouse will be the same amount she paid for rent.

Each family took out a loan of less than $145,000 to cover construction costs, said GroundWorks Executive Director John Wheeler.

Even with the cost of buying a home in Ashland falling by about half since the peak of the real estate boom several years ago, the median sales price of a home sold in town was still at $230,000 in March, according to the Southern Oregon Multiple Listing Service.

McCullom said the Rice Park housing project was her only chance at buying a home in Ashland.

Unlike Whitney, who has carpentry skills, McCullom said she had absolutely no construction experience before starting on the Rice Park affordable housing project, which is organized and managed by Medford-based GroundWorks Community Development.

"I would learn something new every day," she said.

Young men and women ages 16 to 24 who had dropped out of school but then joined the YouthBuild program also learned construction skills by working on the affordable housing alongside the families. They are continuing to work on the seven homes under construction.

They spend half of their time in the classroom and half of their time doing hands-on construction work. Eventually they can take the General Education Development (GED) test.

Ruch resident Tiffaney Buck, 17, said the only construction skill she had before joining YouthBuild was digging trenches.

Now equipped with skills that range from building a fence to driving a forklift, Buck said she plans to earn her GED and then land a job in construction.

The young adults are getting first-hand knowledge about the growing industry of sustainable construction.

The townhouses are built with roofs that slant toward the south and are topped with solar water heaters. They feature Energy Star appliances, super-insulated walls, water conserving appliances and a host of other green features.

The townhouses are wired so that the homeowners can add solar electric panels in the future if they wish.

James Wood, sales and design manager for Ashland-based True South Solar, said upfront costs for a solar system that would supply 97 percent of one townhouse's needs would be $20,680.

But with a city of Ashland solar rebate, state and federal tax credits, and savings on utility bills, the net out-of-pocket cost for such a system would be $815 four years after installation. Homeowners would have continuing utility bill savings of more than $500 annually after that with the solar panels, which have 25-year warranties, Wood said.

Mayor John Stromberg said the Rice Park houses are among the most environmentally friendly homes in town, and they will help families with children live in Ashland.

Although families are already at work on the remaining seven affordable townhouses at Rice Park, GroundWorks is seeking people interested in helping to build their own affordable houses at a project on upper Clay Street in Ashland.

For more information, call GroundWorks at 541-734-2355 or visit www.groundworksoregon.org/.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.