Posted April 21, 2017
  • A group of PennDesign volunteers at the end of Saturday’s build, Photo by Carolyn Zemanian

  • A student installs underlayment in a home’s living room, Photo by Carolyn Zemanian

  • PennDesign students measure, cut, and lay new vinyl plank flooring, Photo by Carolyn Zemanian

  • Two students take a break from using the wet saw after carefully resizing tiles to fit a bathroom backsplash, Photo by Carolyn Zemanian

Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, Spring 2017

PennDesign and Wharton Students, Local Community Work Together to Repair 10 Homes

Between March 31-April 2, approximately 300 volunteers from PennDesign and Wharton participated in the Spring 2017 Rebuilding Together Philadelphia Block Build. These student volunteers accomplished vital repairs in 10 houses in Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood.

Rebuilding Together Philadelphia is a local non-profit which relies on volunteer labor to accomplish much-needed house repairs for low-income homeowners. Many homeowners who volunteer their houses for the RTP block rebuild are elderly and/or disabled. For these homeowners, maintenance issues like a leak or a broken door can go unaddressed because they are financially and physically incapable of addressing them.

RTP focuses on repairs that improve a home’s health and safety. Volunteers seek to address problems before they grow large enough to endanger a house’s longevity. Without their assistance, deferred maintenance jeopardizes not only the quality of life of the homeowner, but the physical fabric of the building itself. Damage that grows—such as minor roof leaks that widen into holes—might one day worsen to the point that the City condemns that house. A homeowner would then need to rely on the generosity of friends and family, seek Affordable Housing, or possibly face homelessness. 

Economically, RTP’s work also makes sense. The cost of constructing Affordable Housing is exponentially higher than the cost of keeping homeowners in their existing houses. And RTP estimates that for every $1 they spend on materials, they accomplish $5 worth of repairs, achieved through volunteer “sweat equity.”

RTP hosts three annual block builds and draws volunteers from a variety of community groups and corporations. Each year Wharton/PennDesign host the spring block build, but volunteers come from a number of disciplines across the university. Penn graduate students have been involved with RTP for over 25 years; in 1988, a Wharton graduate founded the local chapter of Rebuilding Together.

This year’s spring block build, in Mantua, resulted in repairs for 16 homeowners (Wharton and PennDesign students worked in 10 of those houses).  Each house was led by a skilled leader (often a contractor or an experienced, long-time volunteer) who directed the work in that house. Each house also had 2-3 house captains—PennDesign or Wharton students—to help oversee and delegate labor, recruit volunteers, and select necessary building materials. This year’s PennDesign house captains spanned the school’s disciplines and included students from Architecture, City Planning, Historic Preservation, and Landscape Architecture.

At the Wharton and PennDesign houses, volunteers accomplished a wide variety of repairs, including:

  • Removing old carpets and installing new underlayment and vinyl plank flooring
  • Sistering joists to improve stability
  • Cutting and installing new drywall over a large ceiling hole
  • Replacing ceiling tiles
  • Spackling holes in drywall walls
  • Installing new security doors and hanging new interior doors
  • Installing new bathroom backsplash tiles
  • Hanging a new shower curtain rod
  • Repainting
  • Backyard cleanup

RTP community volunteers also provided participating homes with large planter boxes and beautified a local park with new plantings. In houses where repairs are more complex or time-consuming, and cannot be accomplished by volunteers in a single weekend, RTP will return at a later date to complete promised fixes.

RTP block builds offer Penn students the opportunity to develop their hand skills and a chance to give back to the local community. Students volunteering with RTP are introduced to new neighborhoods, meet a broad range of Philadelphia citizens (volunteers and homeowners), and make a lasting impact in the life of a homeowner and the health of an urban block.

We are extremely grateful to all of the individuals and organizations that provided funding for this year’s build. From PennDesign, generous donations from PennPraxis, GAPSA, and the PennDesign Student Council were crucial to the success of the 2017 spring block build. The build was selected as one of PennPraxis’s 2016-2017 Social Impact Projects.

For more information on how to get involved with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, please visit

We look forward to seeing you at next year’s build!