Building houses with volunteer workers is a slow process.
Some years, I was told by a couple of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, they’ll complete eight or nine houses. Other years, it’s slower because of the weather, the location and the number of volunteers Habitat can get out to work.
It helps, I think, if they can get people to volunteer regularly.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays ...While I was working out what I’d be doing with Habitat through June, Trevor Anderson, the volunteer and communications manager for Habitat, mentioned I might spend some time with the two groups who routinely volunteer in the middle of the week.
I hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic about jumping in on a Tuesday or Wednesday. These are my busiest days at the newspaper, and I’d hoped to shuffle my time to later in the week — at my convenience.
Coming out on a Tuesday morning had been last-minute, a clutch play in order to just get started, but I was glad that was where I began.
At first, it didn’t seem like there’d be much for me to do at the job site. After the morning meeting, Tiny, the amiable site manager, sent us out to work. Volunteers fell into projects they’d been working on the previous week or started doing tasks they felt comfortable with, while I stood off to the side, like a gawking wallflower at a high school dance.
I had no idea what I was doing, which Rob Schisser told me was OK. Most of the Tuesday crew had been like me. They’d spent their working lives behind desks. A few of them had construction, electrical or plumbing experience, but most of them had learned most of what they knew about building from volunteering.
They’d picked up skills, slowly, learning week after week.
“I learn something each time I come out here,” Rob told me.
No shadowing, you work
I wound up following Ray Moehlman and Glenn Kragnie, two veteran Habitat volunteers. They’d decided to continue work constructing the back steps for the house.
Like the other houses on this side of the street, this one had been built on the side of a steep hill. The back door was around 25 feet from the ground.
If nothing else, I wanted to see how that was done. Besides, it seemed like a better time than digging a sewer line — plus, mostly, I understood how a shovel worked and how to make a hole in the ground. I have successfully dug holes.
I didn’t stand around for long.
Ray handed me a tape measure and had me go to the house next door, a house Habitat had built. He told me to measure the platform that the steps from the back porch led to and report back.
I did whatever Ray said. He stood out.
Ray moved on the job site with purpose. He didn’t hurry, but just seemed to decide what needed to be done and then just went and did it. He was confident. Unlike me, he didn’t clutch tools like an angry monkey, daring them to try anything.
I figured he was a carpenter or had worked in construction, which turned out to be true.
I hadn’t used a tape measure for anything useful over a decade, but I nodded and then trundled off to measure the wooden platform, measure again, and then measure two more times. This was my first task greater than handing someone a screwdriver, and I didn’t want to look dumb.
Ray and Glenn cut the boards from my measurements and then had me climb up a ladder to some scaffolding to help hold up one of the boards while they attached it to the side of the house.
I’m not overly fond of heights. It took me a second or two to figure out how best to get my foot over the rail without doing a cannonball down the hill, but I managed to get the task completed safely and get back to the ground.
To build the rest of the frame for the platform, we needed something to hold up the board parallel to the board attached to the wall.
Ray measured the distance to the ground and then sent me off to measure and cut a board with the skill saw.
I own a skill saw, but I have never used a skill saw.
I took a board from a pile, measured and marked where I could make the cut and then put the board across two sawhorses.
It took me half a minute to find the “on” switch, but I turned the saw on and began my cut.
The spinning blade powered through the board effortlessly, until it didn’t. The saw stopped abruptly.
Did I break it?
Tiny appearing apparently out of nowhere, looked over my shoulder and said, “This is what we call a teachable moment.”
You don’t make a cut on a board in between two sawhorses, he explained. You cut over the edge of one. Gravity will pull the excess wood away as you clear the cut.
Otherwise, the two sides of the board will pinch together, which may or may not be dangerous. No one told me one way or another, but either way, what I’d done was trip the saw’s safety.
We worked on the steps through the morning. At lunch, we went inside with some of the others and took a break.
While the group talked about what they’d been up to since the last week and what they planned to do after they finished their weekly shift, I took a look around the house. It was a modest, but comfortable-looking place.
The rooms weren’t particularly big, but the space flowed well and there were plenty of windows. Light from the bright, June day streamed in.
The house seemed like a nice place to live — nothing fancy, but good enough to raise a kid, good enough to be a place you’d look forward to after a day at work.
I liked it better than my home, which is probably twice the square footage.
I wasn’t so sure about the backyard, which might be a beast to mow. The ground dropped off and sort of fell down into a ragged crater. One of the volunteers told me that before anyone moved in, they’d soften the grade.
Whoever took the place could put in a small garden, if they wanted. It was big enough to toss a baseball back and forth with a child.
On the window facing the street, pictures and brief descriptions about the lives of people participating in the program were posted. Everyone smiled, and they weren’t entirely what I expected.
There were single parents struggling to make ends meet, who wanted a better life for their children, who wanted their children to have a room of their own. I read about a young man who’d taken on raising his sister after his mother passed away suddenly.
Some of them mentioned paying high rents for rundown apartments, which sounded sad and unsurprising.
I’ve been fortunate with where I’ve lived in Charleston, but I know plenty of people who’ve lived in crummy, cramped places that rent for much more than they ought to.
Every time I think about trying to sell my house, I start asking around about local rents. That’s usually enough to dissuade me from putting another sign in my yard.
End of day one
After lunch, we went back to working on the steps and assembled the frame of the platform I’d measured. I learned what a joist was (it’s used to help distribute and hold weight for a floor or roof) and helped install joist hangers (a kind of metal cradle) to support the joists.
Then several of us on the work crew took turns shoveling gravel into wheelbarrows or taking those wheelbarrows across the yard to dump over the freshly installed sewage pipe. Heavy rain was forecast overnight and Tiny worried the trench would fill up with water and the PVC pipe would float out of it, just in time for an inspector to see.
Then we called it a day. We picked up our tools and locked them away either in the Habitat tool shed or under one of the houses.
I asked Tiny if he ever worried about tools getting stolen.
He told me, “We lock everything up that’s valuable, anything that anybody could pawn.”
The volunteers lock up things that nobody would bother stealing, too.
“I could put a shovel out in the front yard, and nobody would ever touch it,” he said.
It wasn’t just that the resale value on an old shovel was negligible, Tiny explained, but that the shovel was a universal symbol for work.
About the building materials, he didn’t worry. These weren’t just good houses. It was a good neighborhood.
“This is a Habitat neighborhood,” he said. “The people here got houses through us. They look out for us.”