Town/Gown Effort Supports Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville

November 16, 2006

Nov. 16, 2006 -- It was a meeting of the minds…and other valuable resources.

During one extraordinarily busy week this past June, a U.Va. professor, local architects (several of whom are alumni), vendors and area builders capped off months of planning and fund raising with the construction of six new homes in Charlottesville’s Fifeville neighborhood. They even created a new road – Nunley Street – named for the Nunley family, owners of Better Living, one of the project’s major sponsors. And now, six families are enjoying their first fall in their new homes.

This monumental effort was part of Builders Blitz 2006, a nationwide initiative by Habitat for Humanity. Dedicated to providing decent, affordable housing for families, Habitat had an ambitious goal: to build 500 new homes in roughly a week’s time. Across the United States, professional builders and architects joined forces to realize the goal. The first Builders Blitz took place in Raleigh, N.C., and the program has since been replicated in 130 communities across the country.

In Charlottesville, architecture professor Michael J. Bednar helped to fuel the Builders Blitz engine. “About a year and a half ago, I was trying to decide what to do next,” he said. “I had been on the planning commission for eight years, and I met Overton McGhee [executive director of the greater Charlottesville Habitat affiliate].”

Asked by McGhee if he would be interested in designing six homes for the local Builders Blitz, scheduled for June 3-10, 2006, Bednar answered by posing a question of his own. Instead of his designing all six homes himself, what if he enlisted six local architects to team up with six builders to form one team for each home? He would serve as the design coordinator to ensure that the design process stayed on track, and that the different house plans complemented each other. Not only would each home have its own design, but Bednar’s plan also broadened the project’s base of community support.

Habitat liked the idea. Kelly Eplee, the group’s director of development said, “Having professional architects do the designs is what made our blitz unique.”

From the outset, Bednar met with enthusiastic responses from the architectural community. “Everyone I called said, ‘We’d love to do this,’” he recalled. His method of creating the house teams was hardly scientific. “I put a bowl on a table and drew pairings of architects and builders.” Of the six architecture firms, five had members who had graduated from U.Va.’s architecture school. But the U.Va. connection to the project didn’t end there: Bednar discovered that members from three of the six families slated to live in the homes are employed by the University.

Once the teams were set, Bednar faced the tricky task of overseeing what was essentially six different construction projects. “I had to herd these cats and keep it going. It turned out to be such a fluid process.”

In July 2005, architects Kelly (Titus) Trout and Bruce Wardell, both of whom hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the U.Va. School of Architecture, received their assignment to design House 1. Habitat provided the architects with its own specifications for square footage and bedroom-bathroom ratios, which can vary depending on family size. “We were told the home needed to be two stories with three bedrooms and one-and-one-half bathrooms,” Trout said. In October, she and Wardell presented construction documents to the two building companies —Abrahamse & Company and Ace Contracting, Inc. — that rounded out the House 1 team.

A Habitat family
To qualify as a Habitat partner family, applicants must show both economic need and a genuine commitment to helping with Habitat’s mission. They must have lived or worked in the Greater Charlottesville area for at least one year. They must demonstrate that their present housing is inadequate — through homelessness, overcrowding or structural problems with the roof, plumbing, electric or heating – and that they are unable to obtain adequate housing through other customary means. They must also show that their annual income does not exceed 50 percent of the area median, which is currently $65,000 in the Charlottesville/Albemarle community, and that they cannot qualify for conventional types of home loans. The final financial requirement for each Habitat partner family is the saving of $1,250 by the time of closing.

Then there’s what Habitat calls the “sweat equity” required of partner families. Each family is required contribute 200 to 300 hours toward the construction of its own home and those of other partner families. Thereafter, Habitat partners are expected to attend counseling meetings to prepare for the financial responsibilities of home ownership.

The Blitz is on
Habitat builds often take six or more months to complete. But the Blitz was no ordinary build. With essentially one week for construction, the teams would have to set an astonishingly quick pace. Bednar said that in early June, shortly after the foundations had been laid and the electric and sewer lines installed, he went away for a weekend trip. When he visited the site the following Monday, he could hardly believe his eyes. “I was dumbfounded; the teams had framed all of the houses in only two days. It was really amazing.”

By week’s end, six new homes – painted in hues of sage green, yellow and cream – stood on Nunley Street. “I’m most pleased that these houses fit together on the street. We put together an instant neighborhood. There’s communality and yet individuality.”

From start to finish, the project had cost approximately $800,000 and had been powered by the time, material and cash donations of more than 70 local businesses and 150 volunteers, including members of the partner families. On June 11, a dedication ceremony and delivery of keys to the families capped off what was Charlottesville’s single largest affordable housing project to date. “It was very moving for everyone involved,” Bednar said. In August, following some interior finishing work, the families moved into their new homes.

Inspired by his participation in the Blitz, Bednar now serves on the Charlottesville Habitat’s board of directors. Given the project’s success, the group will likely organize another Blitz in two years. “The public response from architects was so good with this first one,” he said. Trout agreed. “It was a great opportunity to apply what I learned in school and in professional practice to a project for clients who would not normally be able to afford design services.”   

THE TEAMS: Charlottesville Home Builders Blitz 2006

House Team 1
•    Abrahamse & Company Builders, Inc.
•    Ace Contracting, Inc.   
•    brwarchitects

House Team 2
•    Damman Construction
•    Alexander-Nicholson, Inc.
•    Gibson/Magerfield Corp.
•    Daggett & Grigg Architects/Planning

House Team 3
•    Ryan Homes
•    Warner Design Associates

House Team 4
•    T. Greer & Associates
•    Osteen Phillips Architects

House Team 5
•    Artisan Construction, Inc.
•    CrafTec, Inc.
•    Stoneking Von Storch

House Team 6
•    Better Living Building Supply
•    Jefferson Area Builders, Inc.
•    Heyward Boyd Architects, PC
•    Kingma Development, Inc.