On the House: In rebuilding, volunteers start small, keep learning

Selection of tools in the shape of a house
Rebuilding a home is a learning experience. (istockphoto.com)

At a time when few people are willing to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty with their houses, Bill Wilken may seem somewhat out of place.

For the Elkins Park chemical engineer, restoring his 2,800-square-foot home, built in 1910, has been a labor of love for the last 18 years.

"I like to do a lot of stuff myself, especially carpentry, but I've done plumbing and electrical work, as well," Wilken said.

He added, "I never seem to do the same job twice."

I spoke recently with Wilken as he headed up volunteers working on a house in Mantua for Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, the local affiliate of a nationwide organization that makes essential home repairs for low-income homeowners. The house he was working on was the 13th he had been involved with in two years.

You might ask how someone who spends a lot of time working on his own house has enough to devote to this kind of volunteering, but Wilken said he enjoyed it, especially working with others.

My first two houses - one built in 1848, the other in 1906 - were huge time-eaters and perpetual drains on the savings account.

Ellen M. Cassidy, an agent with Coldwell Banker Hearthside Realtors in Newtown, Bucks County, was saying not too long ago that today's buyers are more willing to take out a bigger mortgage for a house in move-in condition than to buy a less-expensive house needing work.

In the days of 10 percent to 18 percent mortgage rates, fixer-uppers were a bargain, but with the trade-offs of time and money for repairs and improvements.

Although I learned to tile by watching a Hometime video 400 times, I developed other skills in classes at the Mount Airy Learning Tree or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, among others.

And don't forget the three days I spent as a 50-year-old student at Mercy Vocational High School in Hunting Park. I don't think they will, and it's been 15 years.

Working on your own house gets lonely. Working with others is fun, and very educational.

The volunteers with whom Wilken works are mostly corporate employees whose firms have offered their services as well as supplied needed funding. Skill levels are usually all over the place, or nonexistent, at best.

"Some have basic skill levels, but are willing to learn, based on the scope of the work," he said.

As a skilled leader, he teaches people what to do, Wilken said.

"As a house captain, I have a list, and I typically need five people for each project" involved - for example, replacing an old floor with a new vinyl one.

He asks whether anyone has ever put down flooring. Typically, there is someone who has, or at least is willing to give it a try.

"Once they feel confident, they end up liking the work, and when they are finished, they usually volunteer for something more difficult," he said.

Recently, one of his workers volunteered to cut crown molding - a task I don't do often but one for which I need to bring out the book as a refresher course.

"After that, he was willing to take on new things," Wilken said.

As volunteer captain, he said he enjoyed working with others.

"Every house has a story" - the one he was working on had been a store as well as a home, at first - "and keeping someone living there makes me feel lucky to be doing the work," he said.

Residents of the block on which Wilken and his volunteers were working "seem to be happy to have us there," he said.

"They are proud of their houses and neighborhood" - something Wilken can readily understand.



215-854-2472 @alheavens