By Pat Curry. What does it take to turn 100 slabs into houses in five days? A couple of years' worth of planning, for starters. Combine that with several global partnerships for materials, and people dedicated enough to spend their vacation time, money, and as many as 24 hours on an airplane to get up at 4:30 a.m. and work construction all day. It doesn't hurt to have a former U.S. president and a few big builders involved, either.

For five days last summer, about 4,000 Habitat for Humanity volunteers joined with former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in Durban, South Africa, for the 19th annual Jimmy Carter Work Project. Among them were former NAHB president Jim Irvine, of The Conifer Group, Portland, Ore., and retired Centex president Paul Leonard Jr., both members of Habitat's international board, on which Leonard serves as chairman.

Centex was a silver-level sponsor for the build, which indicates the company's contribution of more than $5 million to Habitat's effort to raise $500 million by 2005 to build 100,000 new homes. Also participating, as part of the team from the Indianapolis Habitat affiliate, was Ron Fisher, of Indianapolis-based Dura Builders, who has served on the affiliate's board for 10 years. Dura Builders president Paul Shoopman paid most of the Indianapolis team's travel expenses, Fisher says.

Big Benefits

The blitz build was the first stage of a 350-house subdivision to be called "Ethembeni," a Zulu word meaning "place of hope." It's a dramatic change for the 40-acre site, which had been forcibly cleared of thousands of residents by the apartheid government to create a buffer zone between the races. Prime real estate close to the city, it sat vacant for years.

Faced with an affordable-housing deficit, the city of Durban sold the site to Habitat for a token amount to accelerate the building process.

Photo: Courtesy Habitat for Humanity

Addressing Needs: Paul Leonard Jr. (left), formerly of Centex, and Jim Irvine, of The Conifer Group, get down to business for Habitat. In addition to financial support, builders played a critical role in the project, guiding volunteers through some technically challenging processes. The build, in fact, was a pilot to introduce drywall to residential construction in South Africa. Key suppliers in the build included Habitat global partners Dow Chemical — which supplies insulation for all of Habitat's houses — Masco, and Whirlpool.

Leonard's involvement is a 180-degree turn from his introduction to Habitat in 1987. Then president of John Crosland Co. in North Carolina, he saw the nonprofit's work as encroaching on his market as an affordable-housing builder and refused to get involved. After Centex bought Crosland in 1992, Leonard ended up working on NAHB's Homes Across America program with Habitat.

"I learned it's about reconciliation and crossing barriers," he says. "I got real excited, and Centex did, too." Centex has committed to building 100 Habitat houses over the next five years and is giving the organization 115 lots in Nashville, Tenn.

The benefit to builders goes well beyond tax deductions and positive public relations, says Irvine. Builders benefit directly, he says, because Habitat's work improves the overall quality of the market.

It's also an investment in future markets, as the housing expectations of the children who live in the homes are raised. Plus, it adds to a builder's reputation when approaching government agencies for upcoming projects.

"Builders are often perceived as just wanting to put down more blacktop," Irvine says. "When they work in partnership with groups like Habitat, they're seen as really being interested in addressing housing needs."

Internally, Irvine says corporate involvement in Habitat and support of employees who volunteer in the community help him keep key staff members. "People are proud to work for you," he says. "The company has encouraged them because we know we benefit. Those people make the company more money."

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, October 2002

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.