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Dream builder

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Homebuilder teams with Habitat to build 1,000 houses in one week.

By Ret Boney

In 1991, Raleigh, N.C.-based homebuilder Tom Gipson agreed to build a home for his local Habitat for Humanity of Wake County in one week.

Now, after leading two one-week blitz-builds by homebuilders that resulted in 36 homes in Raleigh, he took the idea to Habitat for Humanity International and is heading up a national effort to recruit homebuilders to construct 1,000 houses during the first week of June 2006.

“This project has probably changed the color of what we do for forever and it has the potential to do that for Habitat International,” says Joyce Watkins King, who is director of marketing and development for Habitat of Wake County and nominated Gipson for two local awards, both of which he won.

Working with Habitat for Humanity International, which has located two full-time staffers in Raleigh to help with the project, Gipson’s model calls for building an average of 10 homes in 100 cities throughout the U.S., and so far he has commitments for 300 houses.

“It’s not a new concept to Habitat, but it’s a different way of doing it,” Gipson says of using professional builders rather than armies of volunteers.

Habitat production in the U.S. has leveled off at about 5,000 houses a year while international building is growing, Gipson says, and he hopes this effort will jumpstart production as it did in Wake County, where output has nearly doubled because of his efforts.

Tom Gipson

Job: President, Thomas Gipson Homes, Raleigh, N.C.

Born: Born: 1942, Corning, N.Y.

Family: Wife, Pat; five children ages 24 to 34

Education: B.A., liberal arts, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa.; M.B.A, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Favorite destination: St. Bart’s

Hobbies: Traveling; snow skiing; water skiing; owns 12 antique cars, including two Rolls-Royce’s and a 1969 Jaguar XKE Roadster, his favorite

Little-known fact:
 “I enjoy working with my subcontractors and learning from them.”

Inspiration: Father, Donald

In preparation, Gipson has been taking time from running his business to recruit builders in cities including Denver, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston and Charleston, S.C., to join the effort, and will head to places like Phoenix, California, Connecticut, Oregon and five cities in Florida over the next few weeks.

“I’m fortunate to have some real good people working for me,” he says of the time he’s taking to spearhead the effort. “They pick up the slack I’m creating by doing this.”

He’s asking builders to give up a week of their time and involve their suppliers and subcontractors.

And by asking all parties to donate as much of the labor and materials as possible, Gipson says, the houses can be built for an average of only $25,000 each, rather than the actual cost of about $75,000.

That would translate into a $50,000 donation per house, or $50 million in contributions for affordable housing, with Habitat affiliates paying for the $25,000 per house that isn’t donated.

Originally from upstate New York, Gipson earned an MBA and worked as a business consultant for Accenture for seven years, living and working in cities throughout the U.S., then making the switch to homebuilding, without any formal experience, in 1977.

He hired another builder as a consultant on the technical aspects of construction when he was getting started, but says his business degree and training prepared him well for running a company.

“Everybody told me I was crazy,” he says of his career change. “But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Now his company, Thomas Gipson Homes, builds 10 to 15 homes each year, with an average price of $750,000.

After getting involved with Habitat as a volunteer with his church, Gipson in 1991 built a house in a week, and then, in 2000, joined Friends of Habitat, an advisory committee, and now serves on the Habitat board.

That committee wanted to find ways to involve the building community in Habitat’s work, so Gipson agreed to lead a one-week, 12-house build with a group of his competitors.

He recruited 11 other homebuilders by making only 15 calls, and the group built 12 houses in Raleigh in 2003, and then built 24 the following year.

Eight of the original builders participated in the second blitz, another six approached Gipson on their own about participating, with one even calling to say he was “hurt that I wasn’t called for the first one,” and he says almost all of them are interested in doing it again.

Gipson also shared his model with the Habitat affiliate in Greensboro, N.C., where homebuilders have since built 24 houses.

“A lot of the sponsors and suppliers want to stay involved even when there’s no blitz,” King says of the ripple effects of Gipson’s work. “Everyone involved with the building industry feels a real affinity for this project.”

In addition to his blitz-builds, Gipson and his wife, Pat, have given more than $240,000 of their own money to Habitat of Wake County over the years, and have been the catalyst for more than $2.4 million in cash and in-kind donations, King says.

Now he takes on his largest project to date, with the goal of building 1,000 homes and funneling $50 million in donations into affordable housing in one week.

“If I can do that and don’t do as well in my business for a few years,” he says, “I think that’s worthwhile.”

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