A neighborhood home improvement group is one of the most cost-effective sharing investments you can make, in terms of both time and resources. The concept is simple: A group of neighbors gets together on a regular basis and rotates among their homes, working together on projects designated by the household of the moment. Each household receives the benefit of the old adage "Many hands make light work," often finishing in a single day projects that the household would have spent weeks—or significant labor costs—to complete.
The only limits to what you can do in a neighborhood work group are group members' skills and willingness to work hard. One group we know taught themselves how to do all kinds of things; they installed an irrigation system, built fences and gates, refinished wood paneling, and put a new roof on a shed. They also made quick work of big tasks, like painting members' houses and landscaping whole yards.
Starting a Neighborhood Work Group
How should you go about forming a neighborhood work group? Here's how one neighborhood work group, in the Maxwell Park area of Oakland, got started. First, the organizer posted a message on the neighborhood listserve, which consisted of a few hundred households. (If your neighborhood doesn't have a listserv, you could go door to door or start with the neighbors you already know; see Chapter 2 for tips on getting sharing started with neighbors.) The message explained what a neighborhood work group is and what would be expected, and asked people to respond if they were interested. The organizer asked everyone who responded to complete the Tools and Skills Assessment form shown below.
The organizer got 17 completed forms back that showed a wide range of skills and tools. She knew that was too many for one group. Oakland's climate is temperate, but it does rain and get chilly in the winter, so most work projects get done from April to October. At one project per month, that meant each group should have six or seven households, so she created three groups with a balance of skills and resources. She asked each group to identify a leader, to whom she sent the letter shown below.
Home Improvement Group: Tools and Skills Assessment
Phone:_______________ Email: _______________
Preferred Work Day (check one): __ Saturday __ Sunday
|Skills||Seen It Done||Done Some||Done a Lot|
Tools I Have for the Group to Use:
__ Basic garden tools
__ Basic hand tools
|Tool or Activity||Expert||Fine||Willing||Rather Not|
Possible Projects for Our Household
Maxwell Park Home Improvement Project
Hello Fearless Leaders. You've volunteered for a dangerous and wonderful mission.
Attached are the forms that we have for the people in your group. The coordinators to start with for each group are as follows.
Here's what you need to do next:
- Contact your people to meet and talk about projects and calendaring them.
- Get skills forms from those who didn't complete one.
- Make copies so everyone has a packet of contact info.
- Good grief, make up a name for your group. This ABC thing is boring.
Let's all coordinate if there are people who want/need to switch groups, or if there are more people interested. You're on your own to keep this going, but I'll help if I can.
Some basic points:
- Everyone agrees to work at all the other projects in return for having their house worked on. You can play that as you like. One person from the household might be sufficient, or someone may want to make up the day by working before or after—helping with prep or finish work—if they can't make it. Again, it's up to what your group feels comfortable with.
- The homeowner serves lunch to the group and should provide water. It's only nice.
- The hours are up to you, but 9 to 12 or 12:30, a half hour or 45 minute lunch break, and then working until 4 is usually a good guideline. Mornings will be most productive.
- Pay attention to where the sun is going to be for outdoor projects.
- The homeowner should have all projects clearly outlined and any materials needed already at the house before the work day. Know how many people are attending so you can assign the appropriate number of people to jobs. If people will need to bring gloves, tools, or anything else, let them know ahead of time.
- Encourage people to take pictures before big jobs like painting or landscaping. It's fun to see, and we can start a Yahoo group and post them there.
That's it for now. Let's all keep in contact and see what's going on.
One of the groups is still going strong into its fourth season. Over the years, they have done exterior painting, built a stone staircase outside a home, refinished furniture, rewired a kitchen, installed crown molding, rototilled a backyard, built and repaired gates, dug a trench, replaced a roof, and installed a beautiful outdoor mosaic path. The group gets together in the spring for a scheduling brunch and plans the projects for the year. At least one person from each household must show up at each work day. If a household needs to cancel its work day, the group tries to trade days or reschedule. If it doesn't work out, the group slots that household into an early month in the following year. Everyone in the group is proud of the work they've done to help each other and improve their neighborhood.
Form a Home Energy Saving ("Energy Raising") Group
You may have heard all the advice about ways to save home energy: caulk your windows, seal air ducts, insulate your water heater, and so on. These are all great ideas, but who has time to learn how to do them, much less actually get them done?
That's why many people are forming groups to share in the learning, expenses, and work of home energy savings projects. Unless someone in your group is a home energy expert, you'll have to start by gathering information. Get a book about home energy saving, such as The Home Energy Diet: How to Save Money by Making your House Energy Smart, by Paul Scheckel (New Society Publishers), or download some do-it-yourself resources off the Internet. For example, AARP has an online Group Organizer's Toolkit for people forming energy saving groups. If you need more information, you can divide your group into teams to research topics like water heating, insulating, appliances, heating and cooling systems, and so on. You can also look into pricing, discounts, rebates, and tax credits for various improvements.
Gather your findings and inspect each home, looking for places where you can save energy. Figure out what improvements you can make to each house and what they'll cost. Typically, each house pays its own costs, but you can probably save some money by purchasing supplies together.
Once you've made your list of improvements, buy supplies and schedule some work days. The group can go from house to house, making repairs and changes. When January rolls around, you can have a party to celebrate your lower heating bills!
Kick the energy savings up a notch. If your group wants to get ambitious, there are all kinds of energy- and water-saving projects you can do—such as rainwater barrels, grey water systems, and solar panels. In New Hampshire, for example, one organization holds "energy raisers," similar to an old fashioned barn raising, except that the volunteers build and install solar water heaters, not barns. For more information about this group's work, see www.plymouthenergy.org.
Whether you're starting a home improvement group or making homes more energy efficient, you might be concerned that projects combining ladders, power tools, insulation, furnaces, and unskilled labor sounds like a liability nightmare. Certainly, it's important to be extra careful when you're working with a group under fairly uncontrolled conditions. Safety should be your group's top priority. Group members who know how to use equipment or perform tasks should convey safety instructions to the rest of the group, and you should review safety rules at the start of each work day.
Beyond that, you will probably want to rely on each member's homeowners' insurance to cover any accidents. In the event of an injury, most people want their homeowner's insurance to apply, in case the injured person doesn't have health insurance. If homeowners are worried about liability beyond what their homeowners' insurance will cover, they could ask people to sign an indemnification agreement like the one below.
These agreements may not provide surefire protection against liability. Agreements that release people from liability and responsibility aren't always enforced by courts, especially if the homeowner's gross negligence caused the injury. It's still a good idea for members to think about and agree in advance to release one another from responsibility after the homeowner's insurance policy has paid out, but keep in mind that your agreement may not stand up if it's challenged in court.