Habitat Blitz Pits Homebuilders Against Clock
By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer
As home construction goes, this is about as close to instant gratification as it gets.
Builders were racing against the clock this week to construct three homes in a week during Habitat for Humanity’s Home Builders Blitz 2012. The three houses, all on the same block of Akron’s Ardella Avenue, are among 209 homes nationwide that were being built or renovated during this week’s event.
In reality, the work in Akron extends beyond the five days of the blitz. Builders and Habitat representatives had spent a year planning, meeting regularly to make sure they’d thought out every detail. Before the official start of construction Monday, the homes’ foundations and first-floor decks were already completed, waiting for the swarm of workers to raise the wall frames that Habitat had prefabricated in its warehouse. Work such as landscaping and carpet installation were expected to be done this weekend and next week, with a few tasks such as testing the homes’ energy efficiency happening even after the homes are dedicated on Friday.
Still, the schedule was ramped up considerably from normal home construction and even more so for a Habitat project. Typically 80 percent of a Habitat house is built by volunteers, so the pace of construction is normally much slower, said Rochelle Fisher, president and chief executive officer of Habitat’s Summit County affiliate.
During the blitz, however, construction was left to the pros.
The local Habitat affiliate worked with the Home Builders Association Serving Portage & Summit Counties to organize the Akron portion of the blitz. Construction companies Dutch Heritage Homes, Metis Construction Services and Rembrandt Homes volunteered to serve as general contractors, each taking responsibility for one home and lining up crew members, subcontractors and suppliers.
The houses are all one-story, three-bedroom homes with identical layouts and just less than 1,100 square feet of living space each, built on land donated by the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. The houses are being built to Energy Star standards, which involves such energy-saving features as a gas furnace that’s 95 percent efficient and insulation that exceeds code requirements. As a result, the homeowners’ combined utility bills shouldn’t exceed $70 a month, Fisher said.
The nationwide blitz was the third for Habitat for Humanity International and the first for the Summit County affiliate. Wayne and Belmont counties were the only other Ohio affiliates participating, Fisher said.
A flurry of activity filled Ardella Avenue early in the week as the crews raced to put up the houses’ shells. Framers, electricians, plumbers and other tradespeople jostled for position, their work overlapping in unfamiliar ways. Summit County inspectors stayed on site, ready to approve each stage of construction so work could proceed without delay.
By Wednesday the chaos had subsided some as the exterior work neared completion and the builders’ attention turned toward finishing work inside.
Steve Miller, owner of Rembrandt Homes and president of the Home Builders Association, had spent eight hours the previous day installing roof shingles, trying to get his house under roof so his crew wouldn’t have to rush the important finishing details. In all, about 100 people would work on the house, he said, although not all at the same time.
He grinned as Fisher recalled his initial reluctance about the project.
“When we first approached him, he was like, ‘No way. We can’t build a house in a week,’ ” she said.
But the concept of helping families help themselves won him over.
Miller said he’s been familiar with Habitat for Humanity since his father worked with former President Jimmy Carter on a Habitat project in North Carolina. Miller has also worked with his church on efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, but the idea of helping in his own community was especially appealing.
“I didn’t want to pass this opportunity up in our backyard,” he said.
He admitted to being a little disappointed that the Home Builders Association was able to take only three houses instead of the seven or eight he had hoped for, but he understands the struggles many builders have faced during the economic downturn. “This is still a heck of a project,” he said.
For Steve and Julie Brandle, the blitz was both a learning experience and a family effort.
The Brandles own Metis Construction Services, a company that normally does commercial construction. “We’ve never built a house before. Thank God we know how to read a set of plans, huh?” Julie Brandle said with a laugh.
Her husband said the biggest challenges were building the frame from wood instead of metal and dealing with unfamiliar code requirements, all while working within a compressed time frame.
But he had both help and moral support from Julie and their 12-year-old daughter, Kimberly. With school out for the summer, Kimberly was free to help her mom with tasks such as cleaning up the construction site — an experience she described as “pretty cool.”
Her mother agreed. “I don’t know how to do drywall. I don’t know how to do plumbing,” she said, “But I can come out and pick up trash.”
Some of the local participants in the building blitz were being paid by Habitat, but others donated materials and labor. Julie Brandle was especially moved by the contribution of the crew from subcontractor Kline & Kavali, which came out in the evenings to work on the house after putting in a full day on its regular job.
In addition to the local donors, 14 national sponsors supplied materials. One of them was the Tapco Group, which donated siding for the three Akron homes and eight others elsewhere in the country.
Kelly Warren, the company’s product manager, was admiring the freshly sided houses earlier this week, each of which had a different color and decorative scheme.
“We wanted them to have their own personalities,” she said. “… We want the homeowners to be really excited and happy — you know, when they pull up and are like, ‘Wow, that’s my house.’ ”
The donations lowered the cost of building the houses to $40,000 or $50,000 each, compared with the usual cost of around $80,000, Fisher said. As with all Habitat houses, the organization will probably sell the homes for just under their appraised values, with the homeowners receiving zero-interest, 30-year mortgages directly from Habitat for Humanity.
This time, though, the families were not involved in building their own homes. Each of the families still must contribute the 250 hours of sweat equity that Habitat requires, but Fisher said they’ll fulfill that through work on other projects. Because they won’t have time to complete their hours before they move in around early July, Habitat will probably lease the houses to the families until they’ve amassed enough hours to buy them.
Fisher declined to name the families because of security concerns, since their addresses are being publicized widely.
It was those families that motivated John McCarty of Dutch Heritage Homes. He had to pause to compose himself as he talked about the pastor and his family who will eventually live in the house his company is building.
McCarty said he likes that Habitat doesn’t just give its houses to homeowners, but instead requires them to contribute their labor and money — a bigger commitment than what many people probably think.
“It’s not what you see on TV,” he said.