Building homes, hopes

Dick Uhler, a longtime volunteer at Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, relishes his work in some of Baltimore's most blighted neighborhoods

July 27, 2008|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun reporter

In retirement, he tears apart houses for a living.

He fears no assignment - from removing roofs, re-mortaring walls and installing floor joists to framing, waterproofing and painting. As a longtime volunteer at Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, Dick Uhler of Timonium and his bands of church volunteers have rehabilitated rowhouses for low-income families in some of Baltimore's more blighted neighborhoods. You've probably never heard his name before because the man, like many Habitat volunteers, works under the radar while, well, working.

"He's so committed to the mission," says Mike Mitchell, executive director of Chesapeake Habitat, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. "He keeps volunteering, and he's done it despite the frustrations."

Those frustrations include bad weather, bad work, lost time, ever-changing building codes, delayed permitting and no-shows. But when it all works at a Habitat job site (as it routinely does), a family that might scrape together $18,000 a year takes possession of a rehabbed Baltimore rowhouse they can call home. And this month, Baltimore Gas and Electric announced a $500,000 gift to Chesapeake Habitat toward renovating 100 homes with energy efficiency in mind. BGE estimates that residents of the new homes in and around the McElderry Park neighborhood will save up to $400 a year in utilities.

Now in its 25th year, Chesapeake Habitat has renovated 130 houses in Baltimore City and county. The organization began rebuilding one or two houses a year but increased its output and last year rehabbed 13 homes. By 2013, Chesapeake Habitat hopes to renovate 25 houses a year, says Mitchell. It's a reachable goal, he says, thanks in large part to unsung volunteers such as Uhler.

Uhler is no carpenter by trade. His career was spent as a middle school teacher and administrator at Middle River Junior then Hereford High schools. Since his retirement, he hasn't been idle. Since 1999, the self-taught Uhler and other volunteers from United Churches (a partnership of Baltimore-area churches) have renovated 11 homes and are working on two rowhouses on Ward Street in Pigtown. Every other week this summer, Uhler's crew will be out there pounding, ripping, shingling and hammering - but no tarring roofs. "It's like pouring lava. It's a very dangerous job," he says.

The Sun talked with Uhler about the art of hammering, the restorative powers of a hot tub and the moment when all the hard work is worth it.

Let's begin with the most important question. Who hammers better - women or men?

They both can hammer equally well - once they learn how to hammer. It's an art. You need to use leverage, and you don't have to hold the hammer close to the head. You hold it at the end of the shaft. And if you swing it properly, you're going to drive the nail about a quarter of an inch each time you strike it, or farther. Professionals can do it in one stroke. People who are just learning might take eight strokes to drive a nail.

What's a common mistake when hammering?

People hold the hammer too close to the head. Naturally, they are concentrating on hitting the nail on the head which, of course, is not easy to do. It's a target. It's like hitting a golf ball. You have to practice, and once you have the hand-eye coordination, it becomes very simple. There are lots of techniques people have to learn, as I did. My dad always thought I was the mechanical idiot in the family and didn't let me near anything.

Do you fix things around your house or do you just say, 'Enough already, I'm going to hire somebody?'

No, I do a lot of work around my own house. I built a patio, but other things I hire people to do because they do it better and faster.

Such as?

Building a room on the house. I simply said I'm not doing this. But I have replaced a baseboard around the house and replaced the sill plate, which is not exactly an easy thing to do.

Replaced a what?

A sill plate. That's on top of the brick wall that my house sits on.

Can volunteers be a pain in the you-know-what?

No - well, they can be, of course, but Habitat is very good about training people. If they find someone on the job who will not cooperate, they are going to ask them to leave [politely] or not invite them back.

It's not a playground.

No, it's not. It's a job site and a very dangerous place. People can get seriously injured. But most volunteers are tentative, if they're smart. When they come, they watch and wait and listen to what the lead man has to say, what he wants done that day. ... Volunteers are like having grandchildren. When the day's over, you send them home.

Are you ever in the middle of a project and say, "This house is beating me?"

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