Creation through Destruction

How creation and destruction played roles in my time with Habitat for Humanity

Move-In Day, June 28, 2017

Most students entering college are given a speech with the same general premise by their parents: don’t get too distracted from your work. Easier said than done in Athens, Georgia. With football games, greek life, and the downtown aspect—100 bars and restaurants!—the University of Georgia is definitely know to be a good time.

I think students initially enter college with this same mindset as their parents, which is to focus heavy on school and then enjoy themselves afterwards.

After my time working with Habitat for Humanity, I realized that there are some other ways to spend time and actually help the community. During the time we spent working with Habitat, we helped build and clean up houses for those in need, helped the surrounding neighborhood to be a safer place, and learned some useful skills, like pouring concrete.

Filling in the stairs
“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” — Pablo Picasso

Concrete is one overarching theme of my work with habitat. Concrete is the mixture of a dry powder, aggregate, and water. This mixture solidifies and hardens through the chemical process of hydration, which I was able to witness first hand.

The destruction of concrete was a very satisfying process. The opportunity to throw down a sledgehammer with full force does not come up very often. So when this opportunity arose, I was all for it. Jase and I were handed a sledgehammer and told to shorten up some large blocks of concrete into smaller piles, and to carry them to a pile of miscellaneous other trash. We glanced at the pile and initially thought it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. However, neither of us had ever broken concrete before.

On the first 10 or so strikes to the first massive block we felt fine, but the effects of a full swing started to catch up to us. It quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with, as me and Jase made little to no progress on just the first block.

Having no success after a solid 20 minutes, we decided to move over to other blocks and test our luck there. We realized soon after we made the transition that the first block we chose was by far the behemoth of the group. Once we started to have some success in breaking the thinner blocks, the job didn’t seem so painful. I struck one straight in the middle and it cracked seemingly symmetrical. My adrenaline shot up instantly. It was incredibly satisfying feeling to break it with such authority. Jase and I continued to pick off the lesser blocks, and take them over to our pile.

Slowly but surely, we got all of them done. Except the behemoth. After my first strike, my adrenaline virtually vanished. This monster drained all my energy and I was about to step down from the challenge, until Jase gave it a solid strike. We saw some give in the block. I gave it another good blow and it gave some more. We were so relieved to see some progress we weren’t even speaking. I turned the sledgehammer over to Jase, and he delivered the fatal blow. After an hour and a half of pure work in the blazing sun, we had conquered the beast.

Polishing off the stairs we laid

A week later, the concrete found me again, just in a different form. This time I was going to be forming concrete, and I saw it bagged up and waiting to be poured. The wood frame for the stairs was already set up so the only jobs were to pour and polish. This was a little more stressful than the destruction of concrete, because there was actually a right way to do it. But this time my crew was a bit larger, so the pressure was off a little bit. We loaded the machine, sprayed the Quikrete down sufficiently, and poured it in our stair mold. It took a couple more loads to get enough concrete to fill the stairs, but this was the easiest part of the operation.

After laying it all in, we just had to form fit the concrete and smooth it over into nice-looking steps. Essentially, all we had to do was fit the concrete into the mold. Sometimes there would be too much, so we would take a 2x4 and go over the step. This would push the excess to the edge and we could easily remove it. After smoothing over all the steps, I was given a broom. At first I was confused, but I was shown to wipe the top of the steps and create texture. The purpose of this is to make it so when it rains the stairs aren’t completely flat and slippery. I thought this was a very neat aspect of the concrete laying.

Filling the mold

After the first day, I thought our project was a waste of time. It seemed like we were basically just doing labor. I thought I was going to hate coming back every week to do this labor, but by the end I realized I am going to miss coming back as our big group to work. It provided a great distraction from my work in both a physically demanding way and a way to help out the local community. I am very pleased with the work I have completed, and plan to come back soon. When I do come back, I don’t think it will be for at least a year. Not only do I want to see the work that I have completed, but I want to see the tenants that are living in the created spaces.