What makes a house a home?

“A family,” says Habitat for Humanity’s Joedy Isert. “Before that it’s just bricks and sticks, mortar and nails.”

Of course, there are too many American families — thousands more since Hurricane Katrina — in need of bricks and mortar, shelter. Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity has responded to this need by building more than 200,000 houses for low-income families in nearly 100 countries, using volunteer labor, including the “sweat equity” of the family buying the home, as well as materials and land paid for with donations and no-profit, no-interest loans.

“They aren’t mansions to anybody except to the people who live in them,” says Isert.

Habitat’s conventional North American house is roughly 1,100 to 1,300 square feet, has one bathroom, a covered entrance, and costs around $59,000 — about the cost of a luxury SUV. (In some areas, the cost can rise to $150,000.) But within those guidelines there is room for the house to be more than “shelter and sanctuary.” They are, Isert says, “decent and simple” homes — “the heart of a family.”

The designs take into account that family time is valuable. The shared living spaces — the kitchen and the living room — are the largest rooms because they’re considered to be the most important. These are rooms for families to gather — every day for meals, homework time, TV and simply hanging out, and on holidays and other special occasions when extended family members come to re-connect with one another.

Climate and culture are taken into consideration as well. Houses in warm climates are often made with adobe or straw bale. In Africa, homes are built with clay bricks and tile roofs, and are designed with an outdoor kitchen, since that’s where many Africans traditionally cook their meals. In the Philippines, Habitat has incorporated a small outdoor utility porch, where laundry is customarily done. And in Glendale, the San Gabriel Valley chapter is building a suburban home that looks nothing like the stereotype of affordable housing.

Habitat’s main design goal is to have the dwellings fit into their surroundings. So in New Orleans and all along the Gulf, where Habitat is gearing up for Operation Home Delivery in response to Katrina, the houses will be painted in colors that reflect the area, and will most likely feature planking on the sides and other elements to give the homes a historical look. Any new post-Katrina building codes will be incorporated into the structures as well.

Once the design phase is complete, a volunteer work force, with the efficiency of an IKEA assembly line, will build the house frames, tack them together to check for stability, then disassemble them and pack them in a box container with all the other materials needed to build a complete home. When the container, or “house in a box,” arrives at its destination, another team of volunteers will “blitz build” the home — this time for good.

These concepts are nothing new for Habitat for Humanity. Even so, it’s an enormous endeavor. Habitat estimates that $100 million will build 1,500 homes. To raise the money, the group will not only collaborate with banks and lending institutions, but work with local governments to address the larger issue of affordable housing. And, of course, the group will be reaching out to individual volunteers and donors — to encourage the giving, singer and New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr., who emerged as a hero figure in the wake of the disaster, has become the project’s spokesperson; former President Jimmy Carter, who has been a supporter of the organization for 20 years, has already been lending his name to the effort; and jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis is onboard too.

Operation Home Delivery is expected to begin this month in Jackson, Mississippi,
but Habitat has several current projects closer to home as well. For more information
or to volunteer, visit Habitat’s international Web site, www.habitat.org,
or one of the local chapters: www.habitatla.org,
or www.sgvhabitat.org.

LA Weekly