B, Design Thoughts, To Shelter
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My Bayanihan of Sorts / The Day I Learned How To Operate A Rotary Cutter

the rotary cutter: like a hot knife through butter

As of today, I can operate a rotary cutter, a nail gun, and a power drill (drill bit replacement, included).


By six in the morning, my phone started singing at me to get up and ready for a day of volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Through Hope For New York, I signed up with Habitat for a day of helping rebuild homes in Staten Island that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. It was my first time to do something like this, so I didn’t quite know what to expect (and on a day forecasted with precipitation throughout).

Staten Island Ferry station (partially under construction?)

The wind almost blew my umbrella away. Thankfully, it wasn’t one of the cheap five dollar ones that last you only a few hours. (Never buy those in NYC)

view of the dock from the ferry

The fog obscured anything from sight. Not that anyone really wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, since all passengers were New Yorkers who get up early to work on Saturdays (hello me, summer of 2013). The Staten island ferry ride is free, and about thirty minutes long. I ate an apple and chocolate bar while reading book samples on Kindle.

foggy mid-transit view (the glass isn’t frosted)

When we reached the other side, we piled up into the Habitat coasters and made our way to the job sites. A lot of the houses have been rebuilt, with funding donated by the government and corporate donors. The particular house I worked on was a two-storey home that saw six generations of the owner’s family. During the devastation, it was flooded up to chest height, and was supposedly found with only two two-by-fours supporting the entire structure (hmmm). As of today, it’s been under repair for about six months, which is why it’s at the finishing stage.

I forgot to take a picture of the container unit onsite which contained all the tools. We also had two port-o-potties. There were ten volunteers from Redeemer (myself included), and volunteers from other churches and Americorps. Most of us were female (not surprising), and included people from all sorts of jobs (an architect, a designer, a nurse, a biomedical engineer, a cancer data analyst… etc.) and provenances (everyone was from a different state).

Not everyone worked on this house. Others went to different job sites, working on tiling, installing insulation (sheet rock, mud, etc.), etc. By lunchtime, the people who helped with insulation were easily identified by the white mud all over their clothes. We feasted on pizza and soda.

fellow volunteers painting and caulking

I volunteered to work with the power tools. Our job was to install baseboards, door frames, and window frames. To do this, we had to learn how to cut precisely from the rotary cutter, and how to use a nail gun. While there was the fear of getting fingers sliced off, Domingo (the Americorps volunteer who oriented our sub-sub-volunteer group) taught us that if you’re in an uncomfortable position with the machine, you’re probably doing it wrong, since it’s intuitively designed. When he demonstrated the use of the rotary cutter, a big smile spread across my face after getting past the loud BZRRRRRRRRRRRRR sound.

one of the bedrooms on the ground floor

one of the “before” doors

and after

There were several doors on the ground floor, I helped with about three of them. After the frames, I helped install door knobs… which required a lot of work, because the first couple of times my screw went in the wrong way (and efficiently so, because I was using the power drill), and the second time around, we had to modify the plate since the door wouldn’t close. The remedy for mis-angled screws are wooden dowels. Carve them from pine, hammer it in, and do it right the second time around.

As a whole, our group was quite efficient. When this finished, I help with caulking the nail depressions along baseboards and door frames.

Matt (my construction worker name) and her gun.

Required: hard hats, safety glasses and gloves. Michelin man jackets make me look fat.

Watching Domingo and Pastor James install a doorknob

Sneaking in a picture while using my super cool drill that has a light! Such a useful detail for a drill.

With the knob! One of the two knobs that I worked on.

Taken during bathroom break! See the fog in the background? It was there nearly the whole day.

The neighborhood. Again, check out that fog!

A bit after lunch, the owner of the house brought some dessert (chocolate covered pretzels and Oreos) and checked on the progress. It was impactful to interact with the owner, because you get to know who will turn the doorknobs you install, or see the door frames every single day from when they move in.

By 5pm, we cleaned up and made our way back to Manhattan. While waiting in the ferry station, a Stacy (another volunteer) and I exchanged stories about animals found in unusual places (it was in her neighborhood) after we spotted a pigeon drinking from the fountain outside the ferry police station. We got carried away conversing with Joanna about the why’s of giving something to certain subway musicians, tiaras and legos, dogs, work, etc. that we didn’t notice that we were supposed to leave the ferry already.

Lady Liberty

My home cooked healthy dinner: spinach salad with pan-grilled grape tomatoes and a nicely charred chicken-spinach-fontina-and-roasted-garlic sausage, and olive oil. (then I had marshmallows, smoked chocolate, and popcorn)

Today was tiring, but good. On the ride to the ferry, Alex (Americorps) told us to come back, and invited us to consider helping out in other Habitat for Humanity projects. Do I see myself doing this again? Hell yeah. (Alex told me they were doing demolition and structural work somewhere. Power tools, we shall meet again.) Not for the power tools, but because people need help rebuilding their homes. I felt the bayanihan spirit upon us all today. One home, made by different hands. It’s a beautiful thing.

Design thoughts

While hearing the owner’s story, I remembered Typhoon Ondoy last 2010 (my house got flooded, chest high), although we recovered more easily because Manila homes are made of concrete. Since the walls and floors were made of concrete, even if they were submerged, they didn’t rot. Our wooden floors expanded from the water (some of them jut out), but otherwise, it wasn’t as bad.

In structures that use drywall construction, floods can cause structural components to rot. Which brings me to wondering why the drywall method is commonly used in a lot of temperate zones. We didn’t delve deeply into this back in school, since I studied in the Philippines (we commonly use the wet wall method), but this has always been something at the back of my mind. It’s faster to construct, which makes it great for retail spaces and other impermanent structures. Other pros to the drywall method would be the economics (less expensive) and flexibility to change the locations of your inner house walls (although you can use a combination of a wet wall perimeter wall with drywall inner walls, which is what I’d use if I had my own house with a yard… and a dog). On the other hand, a person can punch through a drywall, your house will burn down in fire, rot when there’s a flood, and you can easily hear your roommate watching television, farting, or having sex from an adjacent room.

I’d like to learn more about affordable housing, temporary shelters, and disaster relief. A friend of mine went to Japan last year, and helped rebuild homes that were lost from the tsunami. If I could go back to the Philippines and help out in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (the strongest typhoon to ever hit mankind), I would. But since I’m here in New York, I’ll find my own ways of doing something about it.


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