Working with Habitat for Humanity

How do you keep sane if you work from home? Here the Melbourne Age gives some good ideas. Many years ago a friend observed that I was working all hours, telling me that aiming to take time off each week would never work as there would always be a good reason not to do so this week; rather I needed to sign up for something that would force me to do something different for a few hours. Sound advice and it's how I came to get my second degree and then be involved in Beaver (Joey) Scouts.

Once I got settled in Melbourne I realised I needed to find something else to do during the week as well as working. On a visit to the Home Show my interest was caught by a Habitat for Humanity stand. I knew a little about Habitat from having flown on United Airlines a good few times (UAL are a major Habitat sponsor in the USA), and having moved to a city high-rise I no longer had an outlet for my DIY skills. So I signed up.

Habitat for Humanity, Australia

Habitat Australia is a small operation when compared with its parent in the USA but is growing. It's a Christian charity that works alongside families in housing need; with the support of Habitat, sponsors and volunteers,they build their own homes - 'a hand-up not a hand-out'. Partner families are selected at the start of each project. They need to meet the following criteria:

When their homes are complete, families are given interest-free mortgages by Habitat and become owners. This gives them a security that tenants don't have. Mortgage payments are set at 25% of household income. If a family needs to sell then any profit will go back to Habitat, but unlike renting they'll get back what they've paid. The cost of the homes is kept down by keeping the design simple and by Australian standards they are modestly sized (though in the UK a 100m2 3-bed house would be considered spacious!). Alongside the work put in by the chosen families and volunteers, sponsorship - whether it be money, materials or by firms seconding staff to work on a project for a day as a team building exercise - helps keep costs down.

My first project

Our two houses nearing completion

In due course I was asked to help on a project in Melbourne's western suburbs, building two three-bedroom houses. When I joined the project the timber frames were up and the roofs tiled, and most of my time was spent on carpentry, fixing trim (there are around 25 pieces of trim in an Australian bedroom!) and painting. It did give me a good insight into how Australian houses are built - at some point I will put together a page outlining some of the differences between UK and Australian practice.

Back in the UK I reckoned myself as a pretty competent electrician and plumber, but here in Australia only licensed tradesmen can do this work. Even fixing corrugated metal roofing on a carport is classed as plumbing so has to be done by a licensed tradie. But UK inspectors would freak out on seeing a plastic gas pipe run down or wall cavity or through a loft space - standard practice here!

Our partner families were presented with their keys in April 2011 - a great day after months of work. I had a great time working on the site with the owners-to-be and lots of other great people, volunteers like me, and it's humbling to think I've been able to make a difference to others less fortunate than me. For them, they've not just been assigned houses by faceless bureaucrats; rather they now have homes which they helped build, learning new skills along the way.

Back behind a till!

Inside ReStore

Whilst waiting for the next Habitat building project to start I helped one day a week at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. It's a cross between an op-shop (charity shop to UK readers) and a Bunnings DIY warehouse. Alongside the usual mix of books, furniture and bric-a-brac there are building tools and materials - not a comprehensive range, since these goods are mainly end-of-line donations: lots of sanitary ware (WC pans, basins and baths) in white and almond ivory from just $20 a piece, bathroom fittings: soap dishes, towel rails etc, a good assortment of hardware: latches, hinges, bolts, brackets etc. If you're renovating or extending you'll find loads of secondhand doors and windows.

ReStore has since moved and is now at 128 Canterbury Road, Kilsyth South, opening hours Mon-Fri 9-4.30

Back on the tools

Yea Heights site boardHabitat Australia's largest project by far, Yea Heights, is now underway. Yea is a rural township located 110 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, and is close to many of the communities impacted by the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires. Over the next two or three years Habitat will be building 25 safe, decent and affordable new homes.

After months of work clearing the site, constructing roads and sewers and laying on services, the slab of the first house was laid on March 19th 2012 Read more and it was handed over in September. Two more were handed over in early 2013 (ABC interview), two more in July 2013, three more at the end of 2015 and two in 2017. The remaining homes are being built progressively as resources become available.

Yea site April 2013

Can you help? We can use volunteer labour, cash donations, or perhaps you work for a company that could donate building materials. See the Habitat for Humanity Victoria web pages for more information.