For about 30 years, I was a general contractor/remodeler who had worked through the ranks until I owned my own business. Then in December 2003 I got involved with Habitat for Humanity of Bucks County (Pennsylvania) through my local NARI chapter. We were asked to help Habitat get back on its construction schedule with an aggressive blitz-build of six townhouses in a Habitat community.
The thought of doing extensive volunteer work and using my construction background intrigued me but concerned me, too: The logistics and coordination on a project this size would be a nightmare. But after meeting with the Habitat staff and learning how much they needed our help it was an easy decision to make. This would be an unforgettable experience.
I would head up NARI'S construction team and work closely with the Habitat staff to put the project together. Our ambitious goal was to build six houses in one weekend before winter set in.
A Revelation We decided to construct all six first-floor decks before the actual blitz-build began. I enlisted my three sons, a handful of NARI contractors, and some of their family members. We had a wet fall, which put our project behind schedule. One week before kickoff for the blitz, we still had one deck to complete. I went out alone the Saturday before the blitz to try to gather my thoughts and get work done. The weather had turned nasty; snow fell as I began working, but an amazing thing happened.
Working in the quiet of the snowfall, peace came over me. I didn't feel the cold; the material I worked with seemed weightless; and everything just fell into place. I guess, too, I felt that I was doing something that really mattered in this world. The storm dropped 6 inches of snow that day and another 12 inches just two days before the blitz. The temperature hovered around 0.
On blitz weekend, the temperature dropped to 7 below. Amazingly, nearly all my professional contractors showed up. The memory of the work we did that weekend and the families we helped will live with me and all of our NARI volunteers forever.
Over the course of this project, I became close with the Habitat staff. They shared their lofty goals with me, one of which was to hire a project manager to help with existing and future projects. They asked me to recommend someone. It took only about five minutes of thought before I tossed my hat into the ring.
Challenges and Rewards That initial project was more than a year ago. Going from the fast pace and competitiveness of the construction industry to working with volunteers has been a huge adjustment. There were and are so many challenges. For example, Habitat did not have actual procedures and policies with regard to the building process, schedules, punch list completion, and safety. Taking a willing crew of semi-professionals and implementing actual working policies has been a slow process, but each day I see change occur.
Volunteers, on the other hand, have been a bittersweet challenge. I never know who will show up and what level of experience they will have. We set high quality standards, and, as we all know, although the heart may be in the work, the craftsmanship is not always there. As a construction team, we realize this and make adjustments on a daily basis. It's frustrating at times, but the rewards are endless.
What a great feeling working alongside the family who is realizing the American dream for the first time. You see their pride and joy in helping build their own home and community. I would have to say I have just one regret — that I did not join Habitat sooner. — Mike Fallon, CR, is the deputy director of construction at Habitat for Humanity of Bucks County, Pa. E-mail him at M.Fallon@habitatbucks.org.