Fall is for Framing
Starting in October we officially restarted building at Mesilla Valley Habitat. It (still) feels a little odd to be blogging about my job as opposed to my experiences traveling or volunteering but it would feel even more odd to not write about it at all because building affordable housing isn’t just a job for me – its what I do. It would also be weird to omit such a huge part of my life since this blog was started to chronicle said life from the point where I left the normal 9-5 office job, living in a house, etc. and began traveling the country searching for new experiences and places. Now that I have a job again (albeit a much different kind of one and a less traditional type) and am partially stationary (living in our RV in Las Cruces while we build and only traveling when I’m not working) I do live a more conventional, normal life but this current version of life is a direct result of having traveled and had those new experiences. Basically, everything I’ve done in the past 6 or 7 years has led me to doing this and on that basis it would feel strange to exclude work entirely from this blog. That being said, I will continue to write these as summary posts and not get into the sort of nitty gritty construction-task detail that characterized many of my earlier posts about building with Habitat as a volunteer.
I had taken over the job of construction superintendent the previous October after the build season had already begun so this (2019 – 2020 season) was actually my first year doing everything from start to finish. Though I didn’t return to Las Cruces until a month prior to the start of construction with the volunteers the process of building these homes started in the previous February when I first met with the architect and, arguably, even before that as I began visiting houses in the city so that I could incorporate elements in my plans that are customary in Cruces. And even prior to that I was studying how to build more cost-effectively by rethinking placement of the furnace, duct work, and plumbing lines as well as considering how to reduce materials and waste by adjusting the floorplans I was designing. Also, meeting with new potential subcontractors in an effort to decrease how much we paid for tasks that volunteers are unable to do. The most fruitful of these meetings was with Mike from Beehive Electric who arranged a partnership with Southern New Mexico Independent Electrical Contractors wherein their apprentices would wire up our houses as part of their required practical experience. It turned out to be an absolute pleasure working with this group and the licensed electricians who facilitated the partnership and I believe it was a win-win-win for the apprentices, our Habitat affiliate, and the future homeowners.
In any case, by summer I had finalized the new floorplans, a 3 bedroom and a 4 bedroom model, and was on my way towards my goal of deeply reducing the cost of building these homes while increasing the amount of interior space and adding elements that our partner families would find attractive and functional. As I blogged about a few weeks ago, August and September were spent reviewing material takeoffs, reviewing bids, and then getting everything ready on the construction site for the arrival of volunteers – from storage container delivery to laying out the slabs. And then it was time to start nailing some lumber together.
We began building on World Habitat Day with future homeowners, long-term local volunteers, and RV care-a-vanners coming together to raise the first walls. The latter group, consisting of up to 10 RVs worth of people at a time, travel across the country to stay with us for periods of 2 weeks or more and are a huge part of our volunteer force at Mesilla Valley. Luckily many of these care-a-vanners have returned from previous years and a few even agreed to work for months at a time to aid in our quest to provide affordable housing here in Las Cruces. Along with our dedicated regular, long-term volunteers (“locals”) they provide upwards of 90% of the labor required in building these homes. Future homeowners of course contribute hundreds of sweat equity hours as well, and there is always at least 1 group per week from an organization (such as a business, school, or church) that comes out to volunteer for a day.
In addition to their labor, the locals and care-a-vanners also bring with them knowledge and skills of specific tasks that allow them to regularly serve as crew leaders, helping me provide adequate instruction and supervision as well as keeping an eye out for safety hazards. This is truly invaluable when we have large community groups and/or homeowners joining us for the day and is critical in allowing Mesilla Valley Habitat to build 5 houses in 7 months affordably. The fact that nearly all of this group of volunteers are older retired folk make it all the more impressive: I think the youngest of this group this year was an RV care-a-vanner couple in their 40s with nearly everyone else being in their 60s and 70s. It should also be noted that very, very few of the care-a-vanners or locals worked in anything related to construction in their past professional lives and have learned much of what they know through volunteering, making their commitment to building affordable housing all the more impressive.
The objective for the fall months through winter break was to get the majority of framing completed and get at least 4 of the 5 houses dried in (weatherproofed) so that subcontractors could get work done while volunteers weren’t on site. This stage of construction involves everything from building and raising walls to nailing shingles and includes dozens of tasks, far too many than could be pictured below. But I included some typical scenes from around site, showing everything from large group build days (usually those pictures which include young people) to long-term local and care-a-vanners doing their normal things. In the end, we accomplished drying in of 4 houses and had started the 5th by the third week in December, finishing up 2019 well on our way to completing the houses for our partner families.