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From the ground up

DU’s Residential Practicum immerses students in the day-to-day decision making of building, marketing and selling homes. “It lets you see a side of the building process that you don’t see in class. You get a sense of how things really work,” says Ethan Foster, RECM ’02, who now works for the sponsor of his practicum project. Photo: Michael Richmond

Forget The Apprentice. These days, DU hosts the hottest reality experience for aspiring businesspeople. The Residential Practicum offered at the Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management immerses students in the day-to-day decision making of building, marketing and selling homes worth as much as $360,000.

Unlike contestants on Donald Trump’s reality show, practicum students form real companies and manage real employees. The consequences of their decisions are significant.

“No other real estate and construction management program in a college of business does this,” says Burns School Director Mark Levine. “Other schools may visit job sites, but we offer a hands-on experience in construction management. Our students buy land, get zoning approvals, set budgets, establish timelines, hire contractors, manage finances and market and sell the home.”

The three-quarter practicum begins in September when students create a company and develop an organizational structure to support construction management, finance and accounting, and marketing and sales needs. During fall quarter, practicum instructor Stuart Stein and guest speakers help students create accounting systems, develop pro formas, award contracts and develop marketing and sales plans. In winter and spring quarters, students put those plans into action. Within 15 weeks, students have completed construction and placed their home on the market.

Industry sponsors have been involved in the practicum since it was introduced in 1994 with the help of Oakwood Homes President Pat Hamill, RECM ’80.

Oakwood has sponsored a home each year, and has been joined in the practicum by Redstone Homes, Esprit Homes, Engle Homes and U S Home. The sponsors retain ownership of the realty until the time of sale.

This past spring, Stein’s class completed construction on and began marketing three Colorado homes: a ranch-style in Brighton worth about $350,000, a two-story in Arapahoe County worth about $360,000 and a two-story in Green Valley Ranch worth about $200,000.

“The practicum is truly a win-win-win experience,” Stein says. “Students win because they get relevant, practical knowledge that puts them far ahead of their competition. Sponsors win because they have an opportunity to observe and work closely with a large field of potential employees. Each year, some students distinguish themselves and are hired by sponsors before graduation.”

The University and local charities also benefit.

“Sponsors donate a portion of practicum home proceeds to the Burns School, and we use those contributions to support our students,” Stein says. Last year, those donations totaled about $100,000.

Each sponsor also contributes a portion of its proceeds to local charities, including the Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, the Children’s Home and the Home Builder’s Foundation.

In addition to its residential experience, the Burns School offers a Commercial Practicum course. “These are often multi-million dollar projects that may take years to complete,” Levine says. “Students have worked on small office buildings, and they gained excellent insight during construction of DU’s new law school.”

Ethan Foster, RECM ’02, believes a Burns School practicum can be a defining academic experience, but warns that it’s not easy. As vice president of his Residential Practicum team, Foster quickly learned that deadlines are serious business.

“We had a few hang-ups with our homebuilding process,” Foster admits. “I kept thinking there would be plenty of time for everything, but there’s a lot to get done. I was surprised by the pace.”

Today, Foster is a builder for Oakwood Homes, his team’s sponsor.

“I learned more from the practicum than from just about anything else,” Foster says. “You need to be able to apply what you learn in the classroom, and the practicum is very hands-on. It lets you see a side of the building process that you don’t see in class. You get a sense of how things really work.”

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