An Interview With Jimmy Carter
The former president and tireless carpenter talks about the importance — and joy — of home building.
Carter congratulates the new homeowner in Anniston, Alabama, after a long week's work.
In June 2003, at the age of 79, former U.S. President and Nobel peace prize winner Jimmy Carter, along with his wife, Rosalynn, participated in their twentieth Jimmy Carter Work Project. This yearly "blitz" build event draws thousands of volunteers from all over the world. The Carters spent several days pounding nails and hauling wood in Anniston, Alabama, one of three 2003 JCWP sites. Anniston was the first county to take up Habitat's 21st Century Challenge, a program that calls on cities and communities around the country to eliminate poverty housing in their areas.
President Carter took a break an a hot afternoon to talk to This Old House senior editor Alex Bandon about his involvement with Habitat, his hope for a way to end poverty housing in America, and his prowess with a hammer.
Q: What the one thing our readers could do to help the cause that Habitat is pushing right now, the 21st Century Challenge?
A: Well, as you know there are a number of organizations that will help with housing. Sometimes in places where we've been, we've worked only with old houses. We've taken an old dilapidated neighborhood and rebuilt the whole thing.
So people who read This Old House magazine obviously have an interest in helping themselves, that is repairing their own houses. And my hope is that as they finish their own projects, and learn how to use the tools, that they might look around for an opportunity to do that. Obviously Habitat for Humanity is one opportunity, Christmas in April is another. But within almost every good-sized community, there are organizations that go to homes that need repairs, and volunteers help people there who may not be able to help themselves.
Q: This Old House has worked with Americares to do the same thing once a year.
A: That's a good organization as well.
Q: Are there any government policies we could push or that can be championed — or actually changed — to help this goal?
A: One thing that I've always pursued in this country (I did it when I was president, by the way, but that was in ancient times), but in some countries, for instance, I remember in Peru, we got the president of Peru to come with me when I visited the big projects there. And later they provided all the materials that any homeowner would need for a house. And the people would pay for the materials, but they charged a real low interest rate, like 3 percent. And then they would have one building supervisor who would maybe work with 20 different families in a general community, and teach them how to lay blocks, and how to square up the corners and how to build a roof truss and how to put it on and that sort of thing.
So I think one of the very good approaches to improving housing for people who don't want a completely new home is for the government to provide that kind of special service. It would require, maybe from among our Americorps people, somebody who knows how to build a house. And that person, a man or woman, works with maybe 20 or 30 families. And then the families have very low interest — maybe no-interest — access to the materials they need for the repairs.
Q: I was talking to some Americorps volunteers today and they were saying that their program is in danger. But it's been a real boon to Habitat, hasn't it?
A: It has been. And my hope is that the government, you know, will...As a matter of fact, one thing Millard Fuller and Linda Fuller are working on now is to get every member of Congress to participate in building a Habitat house or helping on a Habitat house. And that may be a good way to show that even if Habitat can't be there, the government can provide a very efficient and low-cost opportunity for people to improve their own housing.
Q: Your own involvement — you mentioned your personal reasons why you felt you had to give your time and get involved in helping people with poverty housing. But was there a building aspect to it? Had you been a carpenter in your youth, and did you want to be involved in actually, physically, building?
A: Well, when I was 12 years old, I was a carpenter, and I was also a blacksmith. We lived in an isolated community, and my father did all the carpentry work and all the blacksmith work on the farm. And I learned how very quickly. And also I became a member of the Future Farmers of America. And at the shop training at the schoolhouse, beginning with the eighth grade, they taught us a little bit more advanced techniques with welding, and so forth. So I've been a builder — you might say all my life, even as a small boy.
And now I'm a fairly advanced woodworker. Since I left the White House, I've made about 150 pieces of furniture — tables, chairs, beds, chifforobes, things of that kind. In fact, we built a log cabin in the North Georgia mountains, and I made all the furniture in the whole house. So I can work with tools and I really enjoy it, and Habitat is a special opportunity.
One thing about our Habitat experiences over the last 20 years is the house construction techniques are quite different. Last year [in South Korea] we used all concrete block. And in the Philippines, all the homes were concrete block. [Here in Alabama], as you know, we use 2x4s, wood construction. In New York City, they wouldn't permit wood to be used at all, so all the stud walls were steel, and we had to use steel screws. And then we've used concrete, and poured concrete, and plaster on occasion. So we've had opportunities or requirements, depending on local customs or local building codes, to do different kinds of house construction. So I've learned a lot about them.
Q: I've been on a couple of different builds now, and I've used a lot of different materials, from cement roof shingles to vinyl siding. So, you know, someone with experience in building houses might want to get a little training in using other materials.
A: It's kind of an adventure for someone who has a skill of building all one kind of building, just to experiment. I really had not laid many blocks myself — I'd done a few for my own projects. But I had not laid many blocks until we got to the Philippines. There we had a lot of volunteers: We built 293 homes in one week. And they were all four-inch, six-inch concrete block.
Q: So you get a little of everything.
Q: I saw you a few years back on David Letterman showing how to sink a 16 [-penny nail] in three hits, and I was wondering if you could still do that?
A: It was actually Jay Leno, but yeah. I was actually putting on some [top] plates [on the wall framing] getting ready for the trusses this morning, and I was on top of the ladder driving nails down, and I noticed that I could still drive one in three there.
Q: That's pretty good! I can't get closer than eight.
A: I thought about the Jay Leno show. One thing he had on there were some photographs of, I think, Al Gore and Bill Clinton, who had joined us at a Habitat site. And they'd taken a movie of Al Gore driving a 16-penny nail, and I think they counted 33 hits. I never saw somebody have such difficulty driving a nail in. [laughs] It was a funny experience. I love Jay Leno, but it was a funny experience with him.
This year's Jimmy Carter Work Project will take place in October in two communities in Mexico: Veracruz and Puebla. People interested in volunteering should contact Habitat at 1-800-HABITAT or visit http://www.habitat.org/jcwp/2004/.