Week 42: Rebuild a Home

HGTV has ruined me.  If you have yet to be seduced by its siren song of DIYness and open concept floor plans, the network reels you in with large blocks of programming, so if you casually flip to the channel at two in the afternoon, you’ll be sucked into a mini-marathon of house hunting or home renovation until the wee hours of the morning.  And damn if those full home renovations are always wrapped up in a succinct half-hour.  With commercials too!

My allegiance to Home and Garden Television has outrageously skewed my perspective of my own home repair skills and estimation of time.  That gallery wall that Q wants to put above our couch?  Psssh.  Five minutes tops.  And that even leaves plenty of time to explain to the imaginary camera why certain nails are better than others and sneak in my drywall-related catchphrase.  (“It’s hammer time,” or something of that ilk – I’ll surely have extra writers to punch up my dialogue.)

reno house

Cut to three hours later and I’ve sheared off most of our wall without successfully hanging a single painting.  Maybe I don’t have the right tool for the job or maybe it’s the 5’9”ish, brown haired tool that’s the real problem.  It’s only clear that binging on HGTV is not the solution.  When I spent a week volunteering, I noticed there are still several organizations rebuilding homes that were torn apart by Hurricane Sandy, even a year and a half after the storm hit New York.  So I signed Q and me up for a day of on-the-job training.

The organization foolish enough to put a power tool in my hands is called Friends of Rockaway.  They send us to a house in Broad Channel, a coastal community near JFK Airport, and on the walk to our particular house, we see quite a few homes that are still in disrepair and others in major renovation.  The “Broad Channel Strong” motto that adorns car windshields and shop windows proves that Sandy is more than a distant memory for these folks.

When we find the house, a young man with cropped red hair welcomes us inside.  Connor, our project head for the day, has us drop our backpacks in a couple of trash bags so they won’t get covered with the dust that is accumulating from the furious sanding currently in progress.  I count nine volunteers plus Connor and us, and about half of them appear to be college kids completing their service obligations, though they are more focused and proficient than their young appearance would intimate.  So much for looking better by comparison.

house supplies

The house itself is in better shape than I predicted; drywall and insulation has already been installed, though the edges show where separate pieces meet.  The owners of the home live upstairs so we’re just tackling the first floor today.  Connor hands us a mask and rectangular sanding block each.  Though previous volunteers have already “sanded and mudded” the walls once, today we’re putting on a second coat to ensure that the job’s done right.  “Mudding” involves slapping a spackle-like material on the walls to cover the cracks.  It’s a job that appears to be a step beyond beginner DIY, but I worry that it doesn’t rank very high on the manly scale.  I’ve been brainwashed by HGTV to believe that every home renovation needs to have some extreme component.  If we’re not installing a media center with a wall-mounted HDTV and built-in wine cooler, how can we call this a living room renovation?

If this were Xtreme Home Renovation, they’d cut away to commercial or pull out some nifty time-lapse photography to avoid the drudgery of these common tasks so the host with the bright white teeth and superbly coiffed hairdo can swing a sledgehammer into something.  Alas, they would knock out this task in about a minute of fast motion, but for my group it takes the entire afternoon before lunch.  And thank goodness for them – I’m barely able to tackle half a room myself in three hours.

At first I am too shy to ask for more guidance, worried that I might halt the steady rhythm of the work by requiring a hand to hold.  I hope that by sanding aimlessly and expanding my work area to the entire wall, I’m bound to sand something that needed it.  A veteran volunteer, Don, smells my desperation from across the room and walks over to give some unsolicited advice.  He explains that I just need to sand the white areas on the walls where the mud has already been applied.  It’s then that I notice the “SAND HERE” markings, complete with arrows, all over the wall.  I must seem like one of “those guys” to Don, the guys who call up a contractor just to hang a picture, and well, he’s not far off.  I just hope I can fool Connor for a bit longer.

me sanding

Connor visits Q and me to check on our progress.  I feel like I’m in seventh grade art class again, and I just want the teacher to compliment my papier-mâché sculpture so I don’t have to put effort into finishing it.  Connor offers some encouragement before pointing out places on a wall that were missed.  I fight the urge to tattle on the volunteer who was working on that wall – so deeply ingrained is my need to be the perfect student.  It doesn’t matter that there’s no teacher-student relationship here; I’ve created one in my mind so I have someone to whom I can prove my worth.  I sand with fervor while Connor is in the room, hoping for accolades, but when he leaves, I wish time to move faster while my body runs on autopilot.

Gratefully, Connor calls for lunch an hour later, remarking that we’re ahead of schedule and can move onto a different task when we return.  Q and I trudge over to a nearby restaurant, covered in white drywall dust from head to toe.  My left eye is completely bloodshot, either from the dust or a lack of sleep – either way, I’m hardly excited for renovation part two.

As I glumly eat my sandwich, Don stops by our table and chats with us.  He lives in nearby Howard Beach and has been helping out with rebuilding efforts since the storm hit in 2012, as has another volunteer who I had assumed was just a college kid fulfilling community service obligations.  They both work construction during the week and volunteer on the weekends.  They are titans amongst us normal men and men-children.  They make me feel like a Grade-A wimp for complaining about a little dust.


Back in the home, Connor demonstrates how to mud the walls while Don mixes up the adhesive material in large buckets.  The act of mudding is strangely satisfying in a “play with your food” sort of way.  You take some of the mud out of a pan with a paint scraper, fling it on the wall, and spread it until it’s smooth.  The places where the walls have been previously mudded provide a nice guideline for the next coat, meaning I won’t be lost like I was with the sanding.

Don scoops a pile of mud into my pan and I head back into the room where I worked before.  The mud has the consistency of instant oatmeal, making it tricky to slap it on the wall before it drips on the floor.  I struggle with maintaining a smooth coat, but the lack of dust makes the task immediately more enjoyable.  Later, Don comes over to correct my technique when he sees I’m not spreading the mud wide enough; the second coat needs to expand beyond the first coat so it can adequately seal the cracks.  When I receive his instruction this time, I don’t feel as self-conscious as I did at first.  Maybe it’s because mudding is a totally foreign experience or maybe because I realized this project is bigger than my insecurities – either way, I’m thankful for his guidance.

After spending a good twenty minutes mudding one corner of the room, I realize I’ve had a major attitudinal shift.  I came to the house today on a very personal mission: to learn some home repair skills so I could fit into this ideal of the handyman.  But it doesn’t take much manliness to simply learn a couple techniques and hang a painting in your own home.  The real test is to put that same amount of effort into someone else’s home, where you will never live nor even see the finished product.  It’s not until I arrive at that epiphany that I understand the satisfaction in simply a job well done, which doesn’t require anyone’s acknowledgment.  It’s childish to still be craving the gold star from the teacher, especially when the gratification from the work can be more meaningful without it.

me mudding

After the front room is adequately mudded, I follow Connor into the back room where a second coat of mud needs to be applied above the baseboard.  While we’re alone, I ask Connor more about his organization.  He says each house takes a couple of months to complete, and although they’ve been working steadily since the storm hit, there’s still over two hundred houses left on the waiting list.  It’s sobering to think of all the work left to be done.

From the time I start in the back room to when Connor calls for cleanup an hour later, it feels like no time has passed at all.  I hurry to finish the wall I started, as it seems careless to leave it half-finished, but there’s simply no time to complete it.  After all, the whole house is half-finished, so it’s not as though there’s any sort of end product to admire.  It’s another bubble burst in my quest for the HGTV renovation, but another important lesson learned.  My need for immediate gratification has become far too easy to satisfy – if I want to buy that album, I can download it right now, no matter where I am.  But I tend to listen a new album far less now than when I had to drive to the record store, search for it in the racks, pay for it, unwrap the plastic…you get the idea.  In the case of this house, where I will not be present for any sense of completion, I still manage to find fulfillment in micro terms – a cleanly applied stroke of mud or a smoothly sanded patch of wall.  Finding that joy in each small part of the work makes the final satisfaction of the completed product that much longer lasting.

Seven hours later, it isn’t visually apparent that the twelve people who worked here all day did anything – after all, we just applied a second coat of mud to the walls.  The pictures I took of us working would never suffice for a before-and-after reveal on HGTV.  And yet I can’t help but feel satisfied with my day’s work, knowing that my tiny effort matters in the long run.  As our group left, Connor let us know we did a great job.  “Usually I tell the groups they did a great job when they didn’t, but you guys actually did a great job,” he says.  He probably says that to everyone too, but his pat on the back isn’t necessary.  A day’s work was enough to fulfill my manly quota for this week.  No drywall-related catchphrase needed.  At least until I think of a better one.


Though the day lacked the excitement of demolition or installing a pool in the backyard, it was crucial for me to delve into the nitty gritty of home repair.  The true stars of HGTV aren’t the hosts; they’re the guys with two seconds of air time who install flooring overnight.  It’s nowhere near as glamorous, and frankly it shouldn’t be.  They place the necessary foundation for everything else to exist.  I was immensely humbled to see all of the volunteers, whether they were college kids or full-time contractors, work without ego and pride.  4.10.