My men’s club participated in a Habitat for Humanity project over the weekend. A group of 20 of us worked on some interior carpentry work at the project site in a neighboring town. This was the second time we worked at the site. In the fall, we did some wood framing, raising and connecting the side walls. It was good to see that the house was still standing and our fall work was solid.
Habitat for Humanity is one of several community service projects along the lines of the Nike commercial - “just do it”. The organization builds affordable, modest houses all over the US and around the world. Materials and land are donated. The future owners of a Habitat house participate in building it, along with many volunteers. Although much of the labor is performed by novice constructors, the overall job is supervised by experts in various crafts. The construction manager at our project was a skilled builder who was semi-retired but now looking to spend his time and contribute his efforts towards community service.
Most Habitat houses are modest and “bare bones”. We were lucky to work on an unusual house. Not only were labor and materials donated, but a Boston area architectural firm also provided design services. At this firm, young architects participated in a contest to design the best house considering Habitat budget constraints. The challenge was exacerbated by a difficult site. The donated plot for the house was small and had a steep slope in the back. The winning design was up to the challenge. The young architects designed a beautiful, naturally lit house with sloping ceilings and lots of windows. The architects included many “green” design features. For example, the house was built back into the slope to reduce winter heating, and windows were largely south-facing.
Like many activities that start out as altruistic, working on a Habitat house also turns out to be a of benefit for the volunteer. In my two stints on the project, I was able to learn and understand many practical steps related to wood framing and constructing. So not only was I volunteering, but I was also learning from the work. For engineers, going out and physically building things is a good idea. Civil engineering students should be encouraged to drop the books every now to saw and raise walls. Design projects like the steel bridge competition, concrete canoe and the Big Beam prestressed beam contest are excellent and necessary components of CE education. Even better, Habitat for Humanity and Engineers Without Borders provide opportunities for students to participate in practical building activities combined with community service.