Hammer & Hand helps Habitat for Humanity with six homes in North Portland

Holiday gesture becomes deeply rewarding experience for crew.

Habitat for Humanity's Rivergate CommonsA few weeks back, as we headed into a holiday season marked by more economic struggle for average folks than most, Hammer & Hand’s co-founder and owner Daniel Thomas was looking for a creative way for the company to contribute back to the community.  Something beyond gift baskets.  Something that fit Hammer & Hand and what we do.

What better way for us to help out than to literally lend a helping hand (and hammer) in the field on a project for low-income families?  We reached out to Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East and offered up the services of a crew of Hammer & Hand carpenters.

And as is so often the case when you put yourself out there to help a little, we got a lot more back from the experience than we ever anticipated.

The Families
Habitat’s model is to offer “homeownership to hardworking, low-income families with a 0%-interest mortgage after completing 500 sweat equity hours.”  Habitat assigned our team to the Rivergate Commons project (digital rendering above courtesy of Habitat for Humanity) next to Rivergate Community Church on North Lombard Street in Portland.  This project will provide new homes for six families, each profiled on Habitat’s website:

As we learned about these families and what this housing will mean to them and their lives, it was impossible not to get passionate about the effort.  Isaura Ascencio’s words were particularly powerful:

“I constantly struggle to keep my son safe from a neglectful and abusive father.  It’s been a battle between custody, parenting, counselors, school and work.  It is hard to find balance.  I was always told if you go to college you have more opportunities to have financial stability.  Although that’s true, I think having stable housing is equally important. It makes such a difference to have a place to come home to.  Without Habitat, even with a college degree and a job, I wouldn’t be able to get a bank loan or afford a stable home for my son.”

We get to help Isaura build a safe and stable home for her and her son?  That’s an absolute privilege.

The Work
Our team’s assignment was pretty straight-forward: finish the interior stairs for each of the six homes.  According to David Bonn, Director of Housing Development at Habitat Portland/Metro East, the chapter’s environmental initiatives created the need for expert help on these stairs.

“We’re changing over to all hard surface flooring in our projects to cut energy consumption for upkeep and to eliminate dust and allergens,” David told me.  “But that makes stair construction trickier for us and our volunteers.  We used to just do rough stairs and cover them with carpet.”

Hammer & Hand's Peter BogartHammer & Hand lead carpenter Peter Bogart (pictured here) led our crew (Abe Sheppard Bloch, Ray Johnson, and Matt Hilliard) at the Rivergate Commons site.

“Habitat is working miracles with the resources they have,” Peter told me.  “They have volunteers with no previous construction experience doing structural framing.  Really impressive.”

Because the hard surface finished stair was a new construction detail for Habitat, David called Hammer & Hand in to trim and finish the volunteer-framed staircases for the six units.

“Our site staff got to see how it’s done by professionals, which has been an awesome opportunity,” said David.

One of the unexpected benefits of our crew’s time at the Habitat site was that it gave Peter the time and space to teach craft to his crew.

“Our work for Habitat didn’t have the budgetary and timeline pressures of a typical job, so it became a great opportunity to train the guys,” said Peter.  “A couple of the crew are up-and-coming carpenters, and I could really take the time to teach them on the job.”

Green Building Alignment Discovered
A happy discovery – one that promises new levels of collaboration in the future – is that Habitat for Humanity’s and Hammer & Hand’s approaches to “green building” are strikingly similar, namely:
1.    Simplicity over complexity.
2.    Focus on reducing energy consumption to reduce bills and carbon footprint.
3.    Emphasis on results over expensive plaques.

Before joining Habitat as its Housing Development Director in June, David had worked in the affordable housing and land use planning fields for over 15 years.  A LEED for Homes Accredited Professional, David recently built a LEED Platinum project in Oregon City for the Clackamas Community Land Trust that won the 2011 LEED for Homes award for Outstanding Affordable Housing Project.

He’s been at this for awhile, and Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East has dialed-in a green, energy efficient model of building that achieves excellent results at low cost.  At $75/SF he’s building homes that cost $200/year to heat and routinely earn Earth Advantage Platinum certification.

“We go to all this trouble to get our clients a great affordable mortgage, it only makes sense to deliver a home that is as energy efficient as it can be,” David said.

Habitat’s model, with its emphasis on energy performance through smart investments in insulation and heat recovery ventilation, resonates well with our approach.  And while it’s not Passive House construction, its certainly in the same neighborhood – not about the latest bamboo flooring but instead the carbon footprint of the structure over its lifetime.

“In these unpredictable times, we don’t know what’s going to happen to energy costs,” said David.  “The more we can minimize energy use, the better.  It’s good for our homeowners and for the environment.”

This win-win is what we’re about as a green builder (see Sam Hagerman’s opinion piece in the Portland Business Journal), and we’re excited to find a kindred spirit in Habitat for Humanity.

So here’s to many more collaborations!  Our thanks to the Habitat team for their incredible work in the Portland region.

– Zack

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