Building tradition from two-by-fours
When architecture alumni Rudi Elert and Paul Acorn came home to Clemson, they found Bowman Field littered with two-by-fours in the wake of a weeklong float-building frenzy. The image sparked a proposition that would soon become a cherished tradition: Why not use those leftover materials to build a house on campus?
It was an improbable — but not impossible — mission.
After relentless planning and widespread support from professors, students and community members alike, Clemson’s first-ever Habitat for Humanity house was constructed on Bowman Field in 1994.
More than 20 years later, 22 houses have been built from the ground up. Chris Heavner, faculty adviser to Clemson’s Habitat chapter and head pastor of Lutheran Campus Ministries, has been there since the beginning. Now, he tells a story of growth, of tradition, of a community and college campus coming together. He tells the story of Clemson’s Homecoming Habitat build.
And he’s seen that, sometimes, the most remarkable changes come not from receiving a helping hand, but offering it.
“The Habitat build is an opportunity for Clemson students to see neighbors who they don’t often see,” Heavner said. “In the past, our Habitat homeowners have been part of the kitchen staff in the dining halls. They have worked in the pharmacy where students pick up their medicine. They may be the person working behind the counter at the gas station or the administrative assistant in an office where students work.”
They are part of the Clemson Family.
“While at Clemson, each student can make it possible for four families to have a home of their own,” he said. “Building the house is important, but it’s also an extremely valuable learning experience. It allows students to build relationships with people of vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
To truly appreciate how much this time-honored Homecoming tradition has brought to the Clemson community, you’d have to see how far it’s come.
“Initially, we were primarily focused on the logistics of building the house,” Heavner said. “Now, the chapter has grown to where we have students actively engaged in all aspects of our mission. We have a great diversity of talents and gifts.”
That exponential growth is due to the all-in efforts of the Clemson community. Since the project grew out of the architecture department, professors turned Bowman Field into a living-learning classroom that demonstrated real-world applications of structural design. Construction science majors saw an opportunity to get hands-on experience managing crews of student volunteers, and bioengineering students teamed up to create sustainable biodiesel for generators and vehicles. The Clemson Fire Department ensured that the house was equipped with adequate fire suppressant systems. English classes wrote and published an official history of the Habitat build. Even the home’s floor plan was the product of a Clemson student’s senior thesis — her designs are still used today.
MORE THAN A HOUSE
When the dust settles and the Habitat home is complete, a member of the local community will take up residence. Clemson works with the Pickens County Habitat chapter to evaluate candidates during the rigorous homeowner selection process. The three qualifying factors include need for housing, ability to pay the mortgage and willingness to form a partnership with the organization.
“Building the house is only the beginning — we also build a relationship with the family and stay involved to help them navigate the challenges that come along with home ownership,” Heavner said.
One of these relationships began with a former Clemson student athlete who was destined for a professional football career. After an unexpected injury senior year, his final season and his dreams for the future were crushed. Unable to finish his degree, he took a minimum-wage job in town.
“We built his Habitat house in ’97,” said Heavner. “Since that time, his wife has secured full-time employment at Clemson University. Two of their children have Clemson degrees, and a third received a football scholarship at Virginia Tech.”
“I could tell that story at least 18 times,” he said, beaming.
While the physical labor is draining, the biggest challenge isn’t hammering or heavy lifting — it’s protecting the project’s foundation.
“Everyone automatically assumes that the Homecoming build is going to happen. But, often, sustaining an institution can be more difficult than trying something new,” Heavner said. “You have to stop and think about how amazing this project is — even once. To build a house on campus every year for 22 years is astounding.”
Current Clemson students are perhaps most invested in ensuring that the build continues for future generations of Tigers. Becky Demarco, a senior chemical engineering major, was involved in Habitat for Humanity long before she came to Clemson and doesn’t plan to end her participation upon graduation. Having served as the Clemson chapter’s fundraising chair and advocacy chair, she approaches the challenge of maintaining tradition with enough experience to make a difference.
“It’s tough to get students on Library Bridge to stop what they’re doing and have a serious conversation about homelessness,” Demarco said. “But we’re going to try — the goal is to send a petition to legislature in Columbia. We want to raise awareness of poverty here in Clemson and around the world.”
When this year’s Homecoming build is finished, more than 10,000 alumni will have worked on at least one Habitat build. As the sun goes down on game day, any number of these Tigers will walk through Clemson’s newest house to find 23 framed photographs hanging on the wall — one for each home built on Bowman. When they point to the pictures, they will share memories of their Clemson Family with the daughters, sons and spouses standing beside them.
“The Habitat house is a gathering place for those who didn’t know each other, but have a shared experience,” said Heavner. “It speaks to the best of what we want Clemson to be.”
Tigers who can’t be on campus can donate to help Clemson Habitat reach its fundraising goal.