Diary of a Blitz
Great moments in building history: Habitat challenge
I’m sitting at my desk, and I’m reading the latest issue of Fine Homebuilding when the bold print of an ad catches my eye. “DO YOU LIKE A CHALLENGE?” it says. (Well, yeah, sort of …) I read on. Habitat for Humanity is planning to build 30 houses in one week at each of two separate sites. (No way! … Yes way!) That’s 30 homes in Americus, Georgia, in June 1994 and another 30 in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, in July 1994. “Volunteers needed! Call for more information.” I call.
Thursday, June 9, 1994
I arrive home from my current project, a nice kitchen remodel in a North Oakland, California, bungalow. I’m a little stressed because I have to get the job ready for drywall and a lot of stuff ordered before leaving for Americus on Saturday. Once I arrive there, thankfully, someone else has to do all the thinking and planning while I just swing my hammer. It’ll be a nice break.
Entering my office, I see my answering machine flashing. I press the playback button. “Hi Dave, this is Ted. Due to a last-minute cancellation, we are in dire need of a house leader here in Americus next week. Would you mind taking that position? Thanks.”
So here’s the deal: Each house is assigned about 25 people. They are split up into four crews, each with an assigned crew leader. The four crew leaders report to the house leader, basically the project manager for that house.
Build a house in five days? Sure, no problem. Do it all the time. So much for that break.
Sunday, June 12
I’m sitting in the gymnasium at Georgia Southwestern University in Americus with about 1,300 other volunteers, people from all over the country and some from even farther. It’s an inspiring turnout. These people have expended lots of effort and expense to be here to accomplish something good.
After introductions and welcomes by the Habitat staff, we break up into the crews for our respective houses. After three days’ notice, I am the leader for house No. 24. “Hi crew. My name is Dave. I’m your house leader, and I don’t really have a clue … or even a set of plans for that matter.” I can tell that I’ve won their confidence and respect. Motivation and leadership skills are oozing from my pores—or maybe it’s just that Southern humidity.
Hot. Humid. Hard work. Long day.
Our goals today: Frame walls, roll roof trusses, sheath walls and roof, and roll out roof felt (about two and a half weeks’ worth of work, by my estimation). Each day has a set of critical tasks to accomplish to enable subcontractors to come in and get their work done during the night. Tonight, the electricians and plumbers will be here to rough in.
We’re not quite keeping pace with the other framing crews, and by early afternoon it’s apparent that we’re falling behind. Fortunately, reinforcements are sent to help out. Help comes from crews that are on or ahead of schedule and some folks that just run around assisting those in need. Even with the extra hands, a few of us are still on the roof well into the night trying to get the sheathing done. It’s not going to happen tonight, but at least it won’t hold up the subs. It’s 11 p.m. Let’s go home.
Hot. Humid. Hard work. Long day.
Plumbing and electrical are roughed in. I have a crew working on the roof, one on siding and a couple on drywall, which is today’s critical task. The tapers will be here tonight.
Again, by early afternoon, it’s getting to be panic time. The other crews come in to help hang rock. Extra hands come from all around to help hang rock. We now have 30 to 35 bodies in an 1,100-sq. ft. house hanging drywall. Did I mention the heat and humidity? We’re out by 9:30 tonight; we must be getting faster.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday
More heat. More humidity. More hard work. More long days.
My crew is awesome. Whatever these men and women lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm. We are all here with one goal in mind: Let’s get this house built!
The logistics of this project are astounding. I’m tempted to say “unimaginable,” but someone dared to imagine, and here we are.
Five days. We built a house. It’s not quite 100% done, but what project is? A little more paint, some landscaping and a good cleanup. Veronica, her mother and her three children have a place of their own to call home. So do 29 other low-income families.
Habitat for Humanity called it the 30/30,000 Blitz Build. The goal of the project was to build 30 new homes, among them Habitat’s 30,000th house worldwide. Impressive by any measure. These houses, however, are not given away. Homeowner families invest sweat equity into the construction of their home or of other Habitat houses and receive a no-profit, interest-free loan to buy a home. The 30/30,000 is Habitat’s most ambitious project to date.
I learned a lot this week. I’ve never considered myself much of a leader, and at the outset I wasn’t. By the end of the week, though, I was beginning to learn. Good leadership requires confidence, thoughtful decisions, the ability to listen to those being led and the ability to motivate. I have a little more of all these now than I had a week ago.
Without a doubt, I had one of the hardest workweeks of my life. I traveled across the country, worked somewhere between 70 and 75 hours in five days, sweated away 5 lb. or 10 lb. and paid them to let me do it. Me and more than 1,300 others. Would I do it again? You bet!
—David Yonenaka, Oakland, California