"geezer" Delbert Tuell instructs volunteers. Jim Wallace.
"geezer" Delbert Tuell instructs volunteers. Jim Wallace.

Hammer Time for Habitat

Community Construction
Writer: 
January 31, 2004

Lauren Shea, a freshman from Fairfax Station, Virginia, has never met Ted and Kristen Katroscik of Durham. She doesn't know what they look like, whether they are tall or short, thin or stout, black or white. She doesn't know how old they are, whether they listen to jazz or bluegrass, whether they root for Duke or Carolina.

In fact, Shea only knows one thing about the Katrosciks: They need a house to call home. That was all it took to rouse her out of bed early on a Saturday morning to join some fifteen other students on the eight o'clock shift for Blitz Build Duke, a combination house- and consciousness-raising project organized by three seniors in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity of Durham.

The project's name hints at what its organizers hoped to accomplish. Blitz Build Duke involves assembling hundreds of volunteers, then scheduling them in back-to-back shifts to construct a house on an accelerated schedule. In this case, though, the house was to be started on a site on East Campus, in front of the East Duke Building. Over a ten-day period, members of the Duke community, primarily students, would pitch in to complete about 40 percent of the structure, including the roof and all of the exterior and interior walls. The house--1,104 square feet, three bedrooms, and one and a half baths--would then be moved to its permanent location at 1015 Berkeley Street in Walltown, two blocks north of campus. Duke students and other volunteers would continue to work on the house until it is completed, sometime in January.

"I heard about Blitz Build from a friend, and I thought it would be a nice way to spend a Saturday morning," says Shea, who is using bright orange, button-top nails to secure sheathing that will act as a moisture barrier around one of the window openings. "I thought it was pretty incredible students could actually build a house for someone. It's something I've always wanted to do."


Many students stay beyond their allotted time slot, and still others try to sign up for additional shifts. By the time the on-campus part of the build is over, more than 250 volunteers will have worked on the house--almost all of them students. That is just what the organizers were hoping for when they decided to start the house on campus. The project was viewed, as one organizer puts it, as a way to "jumpstart" students, and freshmen in particular, into engaging with the Durham community through volunteer work.So many students have signed up to volunteer that, on Saturday, work shifts were reduced to only an hour each. Shea signed up for the eight-to-nine shift, but it's nearly eleven and she's still there. "What time is it?" she asks, and then, without waiting for an answer, returns to the nail she is trying to drive into the wall. She concentrates hard, gripping the hammer with both hands.

Skilled sawer: senior Johanna Von Hofe

Skilled sawer: senior Johanna Von Hofe. Jim Wallace.

Blitz Build Duke began as a project in a leadership class taught by public policy professor Tony Brown last year. It was the brainchild of Kat Farrell '03, who entrusted it to three juniors--Mandy Anderson, Taylor Hayden, and Kate Henderson--to carry on after she graduated in May. "By putting it on East Campus, we have this really easy way to get kids involved and get them excited about a project, and then have them move off campus and continue that work and that excitement in Durham," says Anderson. She was volunteer coordinator for the project; Henderson took care of marketing and public relations, and Hayden was in charge of raising the $44,000 it took to build the house. "We realize Duke students are very involved," says Hayden, "but sometimes they need a little push to expand their involvement. Or maybe we pull in some who are on the fringe."

The construction was timed to coincide with Founders' Day weekend activities and intended as both a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Nannerl O. Keohane's presidency and a symbol of her administration's commitment to being a good neighbor. "This was a concrete way to give back to the Durham community and to celebrate her gift to us as a prime leader in the Duke-Durham relationship," says Sam Miglarese, assistant director of Duke's Office of Community Affairs. "To me, there's power to symbol, and I think the greatest feature of this whole project is its symbolism."

Three by two-by-fours: Mandy Anderson,  left, Taylor Hayden, and Kate Henderson,  the seniors who organized the Blitz

Three by two-by-fours: Mandy Anderson, left, Taylor Hayden, and Kate Henderson, the seniors who organized the Blitz. Jon Gardiner.

Duke's Blitz Build defies its name at first, starting out at a leisurely pace--the adagio movement in a symphony--then reaching a crescendo of shrieking saws and crashing hammers. Hammers are a visual and aural leitmotif: Dozens and dozens of them are arranged in white plastic buckets like bouquets of strange, steel-headed flowers. Students drawn by the activity--what one observer dubs the Tom Sawyer effect--fish a hammer out of a bucket and begin. "Some of them come out here, they've never had a hammer in their hands," says Worth Lutz '55. "But they keep on doing it till they get it."

Lutz, one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity of Durham, is a "geezer," Habitat-speak for the group of retired men and women who are regular volunteers. He was on the site nearly every day of the build, as was Krista Gates '03, who works for Habitat as an AmeriCorps volunteer. "The students have been great--just the enthusiasm," says Lutz. "They come out here really wanting to work. It's been a little difficult keeping them all busy."

Most of the students have never built anything, and that's where the geezers come in. "If you've got a few people who know what they're doing, you can help a bunch of people who don't know what they're doing," as Tommy Murrah, Habitat's construction supervisor for the build, puts it. Kenzie Brannon, a Habitat geezer, age seventy-five, and a retired salesman, is showing Ankur Manvar, age eighteen, a freshman from Atlanta, how to hold a hammer. Manvar keeps wanting to choke up on it, his slender brown fingers gripping so tight that his knuckles lodge in the "V" created by the twin prongs of the peen. "Hold it back near the end," Brannon tells the student, "and hit with steady, solid swings, not just taps. Let the hammer do the work." He calls out in a steady rhythm, as Manvar swings: "Hit the head. Hit the head. Hit the head."

On Monday, the official start of the build, the grassy site is unremarkable and virtually unchanged--nothing there but a few cinder blocks and a small pile of lumber. Tuesday, a handful of people, mostly geezers, straighten and augment the cinder blocks into short columns that will serve as the house's temporary footings; a few more work on leveling the grassy plot they've been allotted for the build. The bare outline of the house begins to emerge. Wednesday, the plywood sub-flooring is done, and the geezers lay out the walls, in preparation for an onslaught of students scheduled to begin work the next day.

raising the banner

Raising the banner. Jon Gardiner.

Moving experience: Alvin Johnson, above, hauls the house home

Moving experience: Alvin Johnson, above, hauls the house home. Jim Wallace.

"Over two dozen homes have been built through the Habitat-Duke partnership," Keohane says in her speech. "Most impressively, during the last decade alone, over 1,000 Dukies put in more than 4,000 hours working on Habitat houses." She introduces the Katrosciks and then helps them and the volunteers with what Habitat veterans call "the glory work," raising the last exterior wall. As it goes up, the Katrosciks step into the doorway, their beaming faces framed by the raw two-by-fours.

Later that afternoon, most of the dignitaries have gone. But a few, like Peter M. Nicholas '64, chair of the board of trustees, have stayed behind to help. He is up working on the roof, making Anderson extremely nervous. "God forbid a trustee would fall off the roof," she says. The build is crawling with students at one point--more than a hundred. "Too many," says Lutz. The front of the house is studded with orange and blue button-top nails. "We had to find something for them to do."

Before noon on Sunday, virtually all of the work has been done. The students, geezers, and other volunteers have spray-painted their signatures on the unfinished exterior walls of the house, all of which will be covered by siding in the weeks to come. On Tuesday the mover will come to survey the job. Ten days later, the house will be taken on a brief ride through the stone pillars of East Campus, down Main Street, along Broad, right on Englewood, right on Berkeley, to its resting place, near the corner of Berkeley and West Knox. Students have already put their names down on the volunteer list for Saturday work shifts that commence once a professional mason has finished building the foundation.

But that's in the months to come. On Founders' Day weekend, Scott Stevenson, a regular Habitat volunteer, is gazing up at the half dozen Duke students who have just finished tacking down black roofing felt. They are celebrating by having their photos taken with geezer Delbert Tuell. Stevenson says, more to himself than those around him, "I'm looking up on the roof, and I'm thinking where those kids are going to be in fifteen years and what kind of impact they can have."

Bob Calhoun, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Durham, thinks he knows. "By going out and helping build a Habitat for Humanity house, I think that instills some qualities of citizenship that those students will take with them when they leave this community. I think that the experience of working with people of different social and economic classes is an opportunity out in the community that helps broaden their horizons, their view of the world. I think they get an opportunity to see that--in spite of someone's point of origin, someone's economic status--once you get to work with them, get to know them, there's a lesson of just basic humanity: We're all people; we've all got the same issues in life. Just by good fortune or accident of birth, some of us have more resources to address those issues than others."

Mandy Anderson is elated with the way this has gone, but she, too, is thinking about the long run. "We're building a house! It's really exciting, but only if that energy carries over. I think that the key to this being a great success is sustainability. So we're really working with underclassmen already, trying to find some people who might be willing to head this up for next year."

For the Katrosciks, the success is in the house they can now walk through. There's the living room, they point out; there, the bedroom. They'll use one of the extra bedrooms for guests. "How did it feel when they raised the wall?" a Chronicle reporter asks Ted Katroscik. "It felt like home," Katroscik says simply. For the students who helped build that home, it felt like the neighborly thing to do.