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Spring 2004

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Nailed it!
by Maryann Teale Snell

Say you’ve wanted for a long time to help build a house. And say you’ve actually been collecting tools and considering (now and then) the newspaper ads seeking Carpenter’s Helper, No Experience Necessary. Then you hear about a Habitat for Humanity project in your neighborhood. Is this your lucky break? You know it doesn’t pay, and you really have no idea what you’re getting into, but you decide to do it anyway, for the experience.

Early in 2003 Skidmore announced that it was teaming up with Habitat and the Saratoga Builders Association to construct a one-story, three-bedroom house in Greenfield Center, N.Y. I signed up right away. We got started in the summer. Working just one day a week, the volunteer crew—including dozens of college students with little or no building experience—spent about five months at the site. By late January (two months behind schedule), the Habitat family—a thirty-something mother and her two young sons—were set to move in. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, May 31
Pulled up at 9 a.m., expecting to see dozens of wanna-be carpenters, but there were only a couple of cars there. Because the lot hasn’t been cleared yet, the lumber company just dropped a load of materials by the road. Four of us—including Sheri, the soon-to-be homeowner—had to schlep it into the woods, trying not to wreck ourselves on rocks and roots and branches. We spent the day building a storage shed, from a kit. Steve, the Habitat chapter president, was our foreman. The mosquitoes made a meal of us, but I hardly noticed, glad as I was to be pounding nails (less glad when I bent them—this will get easier, I’m sure).

Saturday, June 7
8 a.m. start (from now on). Painted the shed with Sheri. (She has to put in 500 hours of “sweat equity,” 250 of which can be “donated” by volunteers like me.) We also tar-papered and shingled the roof, and put up the door—just before it started raining (too bad—we still need a drip edge). This shed was like a practice house. Now I want the real thing.

Wednesday, July 30
Found out the lot’s finally been cleared and the foundation’s being poured. Bad news, though: the loggers not only did a clear-cut (instead of selectively cutting trees where the house goes), they did the wrong lot. They eventually got the right lot done the right way, but now there’s a huge hole in the woodscape and it looks so…unnatural.

Saturday, August 9
Everyone who showed up today (including a few Skidmore employees) had to sign waivers and review a safety checklist—which basically says to protect your head, eyes, ears, lungs, and hands and avoid bleeding and getting electrocuted. Three of us gave the shed a second coat of paint while the others slopped tar on the house foundation—boy, does that stuff stink.

Saturday, August 16
Muggy all day, with thunderstorms lurking. About a dozen of us prepped the foundation for framing. We rolled out quarter-inch blue foam and fastened down the sill plate, made of pressure-treated wood. We had the wrong-size lumber, the wrong-size drill bit (plus it was dull), and no nuts for the anchor bolts. But a trip to the hardware store got us back on track.

Saturday, August 23
Another good-size crew—including Skidmore staffers and faculty. While several of us slaved over the floor and got glue everywhere we didn’t want it (knees, shorts, boots, hair), a pair of workhorses from a local framing company built an entire outside wall of the house, horizontally. It took all of us to raise it into place.

Casualty report: Sheri twisted her ankle on a rock (they’re all over the place) and, in trying to catch herself, twisted the other one. Also, a volunteer stepped in the gap where a sheet of plywood wasn’t quite covering the stairwell opening to the basement, and scraped one leg up to her thigh. Ow. Someone else got dizzy from the heat; we were frying out there on the deck. After lunch I teamed up with retired geology professor John Thomas, measuring and cutting pieces for the walls. He’d rigged up a pair of sawhorses on the shady side of the house—smart guy.

Saturday, September 6
Roof trusses today—they were huge. It took six or seven people to walk each one to the sides of the house, where a couple of limber (and half-naked—what is this, the Chippendale show? not that I’m complaining…) professional framers hoisted them up and nailed them in place. We built some interior walls too.
After a while, the people-to-work ratio seemed a bit off—but you don’t send away volunteers, you keep them busy. So a bunch of us took turns filling in the long trench where the electrical cables run. There are so many rocks, you break your back trying to shovel, and it looks like you’ve hardly done a thing. We need a backhoe out there.

Saturday, September 13
Putting up eight-foot-high sheets of Tyvek moisture barrier, getting it to lie smooth against the exterior walls, is a little harder than it looks. Air pockets were a problem, especially when we came to a window. One of us unrolled the stuff while two others swung hammer-staplers to secure it to the plywood. Another team followed us around, installing windows—they’re all in now, except for the porch window, which is the wrong size.

Finished up the interior walls, too, and got going on the electrical rough-in—drilling holes, running wires, placing junction boxes. It was pretty crowded inside, and I was tired, so I left. This house would get done a lot faster if we worked more than one day a week—and maybe if we worked in smaller groups.

Saturday, September 27
As he does every week, the project manager gathered us around to say: “Habitat is a nondenominational, faith-based organization, and we start each workday with a prayer…” Yes, I thought, we could use a prayer: Help us retain all our digits, help us not to hurt each other, help us get this house done before 2005.

Last week, when I was away, they hung the doors and put tar paper on the roof. Is that all? Vinyl siding and shingles were on today’s docket. I was a little surprised to hear myself volunteer to go up on the roof. It took my legs and stomach a while to adjust to the pitch, but once I settled into the rhythm of setting and nailing shingles, I was happy as a clam. I was less amused by how many of us were on the roof—at least sixteen, all swinging hammers (and one student doing handstands). After seven hours of kneeling and squatting, my quadriceps were just about exploding, and I could feel the beginnings of a mighty butt. This actually felt good. I’m psyched to do more roofing.

Saturday, October 4
Pouring rain and cold—in the forties. It was even raining a bit indoors. I was offered the “opportunity” to go on the roof and nail down some tar paper where the ridge vent hadn’t yet been installed. Got soaked.

A lot of electrical stuff needed to be redone to pass inspection. Cables had to be re-stapled closer to the outlets and switch boxes. Brian, one of the regulars, was working in the rafters with some students. “Listen to me,” he told one of them who was idly stepping from one board to the next. “If you fall here” (pointing to the plywood floor), “you’ll get hurt. If you fall there” (pointing to the hole in the floor that drops to the basement), “you’ll get killed.” There was a hush. “I don’t mean to scare you,” he added. “But it’s happened.”
It was freezing inside, and dark. Someone finally hooked up some lights to the generator so we could see; but all the exhaust got sucked right into the house. Gag. I considered that the most comfortable place on the worksite might be the big yellow portable toilet…

Saturday, October 11
I helped a friend with a roofing project in Schenectady today. And got paid for it. Maybe I’m not a very good volunteer, because I’ve been thinking: If I was getting paid for working at the Habitat site—even five or six bucks an hour—I’d put a little more into it… Mostly, though, I’d just prefer to work with two or three other people at a time; keeps it simple.

Saturday, October 18
Thirty degrees this morning. I layered up and wore an earband. Hard to believe we were still putting up Tyvek today—how long ago did we start that? Had to get it up into the gable ends of the house. Started on the soffit, too—Traci and I measured and cut (OK, she cut; she’s not the least bit circular-saw-shy). The sawing spewed little flecks of plastic dust all over us. Call me a materials snob, but I despise all this plastic. Inside, people were trying to figure out the insulation. And Brian was building a staircase for the basement (finally). Somehow I doubt this house is going to be done by Thanksgiving, but that was the plan.

Saturday, November 1
Hmmm…when I arrived, the house didn’t look much different than it did two weeks ago. A couple of people finished siding one end of the house, and a few poor bastards started filling in the trench again, while others continued stuffing the walls and ceiling with insulation. A student got beaned on the head by a falling hammer. I’ve been lucky to get only blisters, splinters, bashed fingers, and a whole lotta junk in my contact lenses—unless you count what a weighted toolbelt does to my back over the course of seven hours.

Four of us got going on the deck. We didn’t have the right-length posts, the poured-concrete piers were somewhat misplaced, we ran out of joist hangers, and we needed lag screws. As usual, a run to the hardware store—and a collective will to make things work—saved the day.

Saturday, November 8
Met Steve early, to get going before the masses arrived. We had to cut out part of the upstairs floor (the way it was, you could whack your head going down the stairs) and frame some basement walls. Before long it got crowded again—people huddling in the basement to keep warm, others hauling insulation upstairs. (The insulation has been redone twice now; not sure why.) A new porch window was delivered—wrong size, again.

Saturday, November 22
I helped unload a truckload of Sheetrock—awkward, heavy buggers. Of course it was easier once I realized the sheets were taped together in pairs. Also carried the leftover insulation to the Habitat house next door (which is being built by professionals who work every day, and even though they just started it three weeks ago, they’re about as far along as we are after three months). Finally today we installed the new, right-size porch window.
Sheri twisted her ankle again on a rock and, as I helped her get to her car, growled, “I hate this f***ing place!” We both know she didn’t mean it. I think she’d just like some assurance that she and her boys really will be in their new house by Christmas.

Saturday, December 20
First thing I did was cover a misplaced hole in the floor (for a heat grate) with a scrap of plywood (it took a bit of digging, since the scrap pile was buried by two major snowstorms this month). The final pieces of Sheetrock were going up, and the kitchen cabinets. A professional was there hanging interior doors; I helped him measure, cut, and install trim for all the windows, closets, and doors. It was rock-hard poplar, and I’d forgotten how jarring hammering can be. (My brain, my brain!) But this is what I like: a clear-cut job with some challenge, some fun, some reward—and two people on it.

Saturday, December 27
I woke up around 7 a.m. and lay there, thinking, I really should go to the house today; I really should. For an hour. I was about to get up, layer on some clothes, and toss my loaded tool bucket in the car, when I suddenly remembered that today was not a Habitat workday after all. Was I relieved? Yeah.

Saturday, January 3
I woke up around 7 a.m. and lay there, thinking, I really should go to the house today; I really should. For about an hour. I knew this was a workday. I imagined that a crew of better-minded, truly dedicated volunteers had already rolled out of bed and were thronging to the worksite. Even so, I felt a little guilty when I decided not to go.

Tuesday, January 6
Met Sheri at the house this evening, to paint (and assuage my guilt). Five hours later, there were two red-white-and-blue bedrooms (the kids’ request) and a mushroom-hued living room with white trim. In some places, nonpaintable caulk had been used along the doors and windows, so the paint just beaded up on the trim. The aggravation of this discovery was tempered by our sense of humor. Either that, or the paint fumes had gone to our heads. When we left, it was snowing.

Maryann Teale Snell is Scope’s associate editor.

It’s not about the money

Think undergrads are inclined to laze about on Saturday mornings, recovering from the week’s studies (et cetera)? It might be true. Some, though (plus a few staff and faculty), got in the habit last semester of hauling themselves out of the sack to be at work by 8 a.m. (roughly). They weren’t paid a penny, but it’s not about the money.

I had a feeling of ultimate satisfaction after each day of work. When I was building, I was creatinga place for people to raise a family—and everything else that was going on in my life seemed inconsequential.

—Kasia Tomecka ’06

The best moment was when we installed the front door. I remember telling Sheri, the homeowner.Her smile, when she first walked through it, was unforgettable. As much as I enjoyed the physical aspect, the downtime during lunch—when we sat around and talked to the Habitat veterans—was really memorable. They have such stories.

—Doug Herbst ’06, co-president, Skidmore
chapter of Habitat for Humanity

It was great to see the Skidmore students. They got some of the stinky jobs but came back for more. Many days I was directing a crew of three or four, and it was like being in the classroom again. Most fun? I got to use a nail gun. Boy, does that make one feel like a stud.

—John Thomas, professor emeritus of geosciences

The Habitat volunteers were so trusting with us students. If we were too afraid to go on the roof, they were totally cool with that and found something else for us to do. On the other hand, if all we wanted to do was get some sort of machine in our hands as soon as possible, they’d show us how to use it and how to be safe, and leave us to our work.

—Jessica Neilson ’07

From my first second on the site, I knew it would be fun. The other volunteers made the working environment easy. And the woman we were building the house for was there helping us out, which made the experience even more rewarding because I was helping someone I personally knew.

—Michael Linker ’06


© 2004 Skidmore College