Despite snow and cold, volunteers help make Habitat’s Basalt project happen

Construction progresses on the Basalt Vista Affordable Housing project in Basalt in March. The Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork project will produce as much energy as homeowners consume. Aspen Skiing Co. was asked by a Basalt official to also build a net zero project.
Aspen Times file

Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork has a crackerjack crew of seven in-house construction workers cranking away on its latest project, and they are getting an indispensable assist.

At Basalt Vista, a 27-unit project for workers in Pitkin County and teachers in the Roaring Fork School District, volunteers have dutifully showed up since December when the first two duplexes sprouted from the ground. Volunteers have donated their time despite frigid temperatures, sloppy snow and gloomy days.

“There’s not an opportunity to give back to people quite like building their house,” said Amy French, volunteer coordinator and family services director for Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork.

A big part of Habitat’s mission is recruiting community volunteers to help with construction of housing for those in need. French likens it to a good, old-fashioned barn raising. The community shows up en masse for a common goal. Volunteers contribute about 50 percent of the time needed to build Habitat homes, French said. They don’t necessarily account for 50 percent of the construction since they don’t have the skills of the regular staff.

On Thursday, 10 members of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s board of directors and staff toiled on the exterior of a duplex that will be occupied this summer by two families working in Pitkin County. It was the third consecutive Thursday that housing authority volunteers compiled a crew.

Andrew Miller, an administrative assistant for the housing authority, said his regular position is a desk job, so it was interesting to try something new in construction, if even for a day.

“It’s my first time ever doing anything like this, so it’s a little out of my wheelhouse,” Miller said.

Nearly all of the housing authority staff of 15 jumped at the chance to help out on the field project. No prior construction experience was necessary. The Habitat regulars were willing to teach new skills, but they would tackle anything the volunteers were skittish to try.

Miller was installing framing for exterior insulation Thursday.

“We’ve had a great response from our staff,” Miller said. Colleagues have told him, “This is great. I’m so glad we’re doing this especially because this is part of the housing authority (inventory).”

It was particularly rewarding because the staff organized the lottery to determine who got to purchase the units for Pitkin County workers.

“We’re standing in one of the units that went through the lottery process,” Miller noted.

Valerie Forbes, a member of the housing authority’s board of directors, helped organize the housing authority volunteer days. She had previously lined up volunteers from the hospitality business, so she had coordinated with French before. The strong response from the housing authority was impressive, she said. She was hoping to get enough volunteers for one day. They filled three days instead.

“A lot of us live in affordable housing,” Forbes said. “We live in affordable housing. Why not help build affordable housing?”

In addition to housing authority staff and board members, Forbes recruited her friend Linda Manning, the Aspen city clerk, to help. Manning worked two consecutive Thursdays at Basalt Vista. She said she finds the work rewarding and even relaxing.

“It’s a new meditation thing,” she quipped.

Since she tops 6 feet, Manning was recruited for some special assignments, such as installing hangars under the decks of the units. The units are on a slanted pitch and the decks jut out high above the ground.

Manning said she is comfortable using power tools and being on construction sites, so the Basalt Vista volunteer work wasn’t intimidating. She approaches the job with a particular goal.

“You build it as if you were buying it,” she said.

Habitat projects attract a diverse universe of volunteers — from bankers to inmates at the Rifle Correction Center, a minimum-security facility that allows inmates to have a job during the day and return to the institution at night. They supply workers for Habitat projects between one and four days per week. In December, inmates provided 312 volunteer hours and 288 in January.

“We would never be able to build homes at our current speed without their help,” French said.

French said the volunteerism is a good team-building exercise for offices. Sometimes individuals take it upon themselves to help. A woman recently asked her friends to help her celebrate her birthday with a volunteer day at Basalt Vista.

Some Roaring Fork School District employees donated their labor to help on homes that colleagues have been selected to purchase.

The future homeowners of the four units currently under construction have contributed 450 hours at the construction site and at the Habitat ReStore. One of the future homeowners, Heather Short, told Habitat the outpouring of community support surprised her.

“I was shocked to find out some people were volunteering just because they believed in helping others. They didn’t even know us,” Short said in a statement through Habitat.

Aspen Skiing Co., Basalt Police Department, Colorado Mountain College and Rocky Mountain Institute are among the groups lined up for volunteer days in coming months. March is “soft” for volunteers but spring and into summer is already filling up, French said. Volunteers are asked to work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Between eight and 10 volunteers is the optimum number, she said.

French can be contacted at to organize volunteer days.

Scott Gilbert, president of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork, said “building community” is as vital as building homes and building hope, all part of the nonprofit’s motto. Enlisting the volunteers is a big part of building community, he said.