For a Habitat For Humanity house build, my job was to work on the porch stairs. Construction on the raised ranch had been in progress for several months. When our group arrived at the site, the framing mostly had been completed. The house was not yet weather-proofed, however. We installed insulation that day, and there was another week or so to go before the windows arrived.
The raised ranch had a back door and a porch. For the stairs down to the back yard, four tread beams had been cut out of timber and were ready to be attached to the porch framing. The stairs were designed to land on a small concrete slab in the yard. But the slab wasn’t poured, and the first step that morning was to dig out the site and place a square form. Our construction supervisor showed us some tricks on how to place and level the form. We used the cut stair beams to center and locate the slab form. By adjusting the form and checking/ rechecking with a level, we were able to get everything to line up. It wasn’t a fancy survey, but it worked well.
The small back porch was to be supported by timber columns resting on 4’ deep concrete foundations which weren’t yet poured. The concrete pouring would take more time because it was necessary for the work to be reviewed by the town’s building inspector. But the schedule and resources required that the framing of the stairs proceed even without the final porch foundations in the ground. We were able to underpin the back porch with temporary columns and screw in the stair beams. Small vertical adjustments were made with temporary shim pieces. Later, once the foundations were in place, inspected and approved, the final columns could be installed and nudged into position.
With the stair beams in place, next to come were the horizontal and vertical stair riser slats. We stained larger pieces of wood and then cut the rectangular stair shapes. After the stain dried, we sequentially attached the risers to the stair beams with wood screws. Each step of the way, our experienced CM showed us tricks to, if not reach perfection, get close enough to it. At one point, the interior stair beam next to the back wall of the house was bowed out a little bit too much. Rather than cut new, wider stair pieces, were able to push the existing beam in slightly and attach it in place with wood screws. In this way, our CM came to the rescue many times with good advice. Within a few hours our inexperienced group was well along the path from theoretical knowledge to practical understanding of how to get things done.
Habitat for Humanity provides affordable housing using an approach that is excellent in many ways. The organization works with local communities to find sites to build, rallies support for contributions of materials, and organizes volunteer groups to actually build the house under expert supervision. Future beneficiaries undergo a rigorous process to qualify for a new house. They do not receive handouts. They are expected to participate in the building their own house through contribution of “sweat equity”. So the future home owners contribute alongside volunteers. This interaction is unusual in contrast to many charities where the donors and receivers are separate. The completed house is not free but is offered at a no-interest loan. Overall house costs are reduced through contributions of volunteer design, labor and materials. In the end, a house that may cost 200K on the market can be covered by a mortgage for 75K.
Habitat for Humanity's program for affordable housing uses a hands-on approach that everyone benefits from. For volunteers, the activity of physically building and interacting as part of the community is a higher order of charity than just writing a check. The experience of working on a house also provides a big bonus. In getting out and building, engineers can get a lot of practical experience that is not available in the office. The Habitat for Humanity approach may not work for everything- I’m not so sure that, for example, volunteer-for-a-day brain surgeons would be very successful, even with expert supervision. Also, when building a house or participating in any other type of infrastructure construction, there is a lot of specialized work that needs the attention, experience and care that volunteers are not suitable for. But even so, many jobs have more mundane aspects that volunteers can tackle with good supervision. At the end of the day, a deserving family has a house and all parts of the community are that much stronger for it.