2007 NOLA Trip Part 2: Homebuilding

I was in NOLA this past week to help build homes through the programs of the New Orleans Area Habitat For Humanity and Americorps.

We arrived at Camp Hope at around 7:30pm on Monday, December 17th. We missed the orientation but were able to check in. Camp Hope is an old school that has been converted to house volunteers, as well as some Americorps staff. For twenty bucks a night, they give you a place to sleep and shower, and provide three meals per day.

The next morning we reported to Musician’s Village in the Ninth Ward neighborhood. It turned out that we didn’t actually work on any houses physically within the village, but we were working on some houses nearby.

I preferred the construction work we did more than the gutting work I did last March in 2006. Gutting, though necessary, is a sad endeavor. The best you can say to a homeowner is, “You know that sludgy, moldy pile that used to be your worldly possessions? Well, it’s out on the curb now! Good luck with the rebuilding!” Construction is something I could feel a lot more positive about.

The houses being constructed are 12 basic templates, all variations on a shotgun shack.

Here are some pictures to illustrate the basic architecture — a narrow house with a main hallway running its length, with rooms on either side.

Looking to the back from the front (from the house on Gallier)

Looking toward the front from the back room (from the house on Gallier)

The first house we worked on was almost finished when we started working on it. Mostly we were just applying a couple coats of eggshell white to the interior, and doing some miscellaneous touch-ups. There was a house right next to ours where the walls were going up.

The just-started house and the almost-finished house, both on N Galvez, photographed from behind

I spent some time in the just-started house doing “blocking”, which consisted of hammering pieces of board between the studs in what was eventually to become the kitchen. We were putting these boards in so the kitchen cabinets could be hung from them.

Work being done on the just-started house

The day we switched to work on the just-started house it was sunny, and must have been in the low-80’s. I was actually sweating in the middle of December. Crazy, for an Illinois boy such as myself. We only worked a day on this house, as the next two days were rainy.

The last house I worked on was further along than the just-started house, but not as far as the almost-finished house:

There was a lot of trash outside this house, two large dumpsters and plenty of crap on the ground, which we did our best to clean up. And wouldn’t you know there was an iSplotchy in the debris.

During the time I was working in it, I paused and took a picture of this paint bucket to remind me where this last house was situated:

In the house on Gallier I got to learn how to use a circular saw. We were “casing and basing”, casing the doorways and putting baseboard down. I cut a fair amount of baseboards, and did my best at hammering them in.

I couldn’t help but think of the Simpsons episode Hurricane Neddy, in the scene where Ned Flanders has a mental breakdown. The scene would pop up often in my head, particularly if I didn’t get a nail into the baseboard exactly the right way.

Sadly, the fine folks at Fox have disabled a YouTube video of Ned Flanders freaking out after the house his well-meaning neighbors built promptly collapses into a rubble pile (his original house had been destroyed by a hurricane).

Here’s a link to the episode on another site. It takes a long time to load, so you might be satisfied with some choice Ned Flanders quotes.

I’m not sure how much better I am at construction, but seeing as my prior experience was nil, I’d say it’s better now. There weren’t lots of volunteers down there during our week, but an Americorps worker said he expected the number to double after the first week of January. By spring, there are probably going to be over one thousand volunteers, consisting mostly of good-hearted college kids.

What volunteers I did meet and work with I had a great time with. Everyone was concerned with doing the best possible job they could. I met the homeowner of the last house on our final day. I just hope it can be finished soon and she can move in with her family.

Here’s one last pic, taking a break on the front steps of the first house we worked at:

Clockwise, from the lower left:
Maria, a French woman visiting from her home in London
Elaine, a sweet person from California, who came out after she recently lost her job
Andy, my travelin’ buddy
Natalie, a quick-witted smartypants getting her PhD at Vanderbilt

Not pictured: Lots of other wonderful people I had the good fortune to meet and volunteer with.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of my 2007 NOLA Trip: Food, Drink, Music.