I have been a Construction Superintendent for years but just recently got hired on as a Mutual Self-Help Housing Construction Supervisor. What advice do you have for me?

New to Self-Help but not Construction 

Dear Self-Help Newby,

While I have been involved in the program for many years I thought I’d seek advice from the experts for you. The volume of responses and your peers’ willingness to pass on advice and expertise overwhelmed me. From Hawaii, Alaska, California, Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Washington and Utah construction supervisors have provided their best advice to your query. From the horse’s mouth so to speak, here’s what they said:

What one piece of advice would you give to a new Self-Help Housing Construction Supervisor?

People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Be honest and always be two steps ahead of the families.

– Dennis Delfin, Hawaii Island Community Development Corporation, Hawaii

Always have a full day’s work lined out ahead of time. This means you must have all of your material on the job site, and ideally have your work teams already made up. I feel one of the biggest things a successful supervisor needs is the respect of the families. A supervisor earns this by working side -by-side with the families. And always remember you may have built hundreds of houses, but this is their one lifelong dream to build and own their home.

– Larry Weiss, Construction Supervisor RCHDC, California

Lead by example and be consistent.

Dean Nail, Construction Manager Housing Kitsap, Washington State

Always be positive, everything you do as a supervisor is being watched by others whether it’s the Self-Help group you are working with or volunteers. Even one small negative comment can create a world of problems later down the road. This is not an easy task to do but you need to learn to handle problems in a positive way. I always remind myself and others why we are doing this program and small issues that arise really do not seem so big.

– Chad Whitaker, Self-Help Construction Supervisor SCCAP, Idaho

Stay as patient and flexible as possible because nothing goes on schedule.

– Loren Bass, RurAL CAP, Alaska

Keep these two concepts in mind: relationships and communication! Moving from the field to a supervisory role in the office, I quickly realized that I couldn’t just strap on my nail bags and fix or do the things myself that needed to be done. I was faced with relying on other people to send me information and documents in order to get my job done. Forming trustworthy relationships and maintaining communication with your suppliers, architects, etc., is essential when the time comes that you need that one piece of information or document that allows you to move forward. The more of these individuals you have on your team, the easier it will be to overcome challenges and deadlines. Maintaining constant, open communication with your onsite field staff helps to keep a healthy link between field personnel and office personnel and is also a great way to find out if your subcontractors are performing up to par.

Jason Marr, Community Housing Improvement Program, California

Follow and enforce the group agreement. It’s the only tool you have. If you let the group get away with breaking the rules they will. Don’t let things slide, set examples early and you will not have to later.


Patience. Look for and use the strength of your group. Get to know your group before you pick your leaders. Make sure you take charge of your group from the start or someone in the group will. Stay with your group as much as possible on the job site. Your presence will help keep your group together. Do whatever you can to keep your group together to avoid personality conflicts. Personality conflicts will fracture your group faster than anything else. Encourage group time other than work, remind them this is just temporary.

– Trent Hansen NNHC, Utah

Have a spelled out timeline of every single phase broken down into days and update it weekly. Even basic stuff like cleanup and hold them accountable.

– Anonymous

You need to make this FUN for the families and yourself! Keep a positive attitude; it is a challenge to keep the group focused on building each home as a team. You have to pre-plan a lot for weekend work. I plan for 15 to 20 people and prioritize what needs to be done. You need to learn the special skills each person has in a short time and assign them to what they do best. The supervisor needs to preach quality to them daily! You need to roll your sleeves up and get right in there with them and physically show them how things are done, just explaining how to do something does not work in most cases.

– Paul Downey, CRHDC, Colorado

The first thing that you have to realize is that most of your participants are not from a construction background. Everything is new for these families from using a worm drive to walking up a ladder. You will have to learn how to adapt lots of different teaching techniques.

Be patient. These families push themselves hard. They work all week and then have to work another 35 hours. It might be the hardest thing they have ever done, so be sympathetic. You are a supervisor not there boss. Keep them motivated and communicating. They will all “hit the wall” when that happens find ways to keep their eye on the prize.

Safety is key. Keep your eye on everything and everyone. Try to have them police themselves with the aspects of safety, but stay vigilant.

You are going to get frustrated and have to repeat yourself a lot. Try to keep a level head and be understanding.

Jarrod A. Gardner, CAP of NW Montana

While I started out just answering your question Newby, I found I loved this exercise. What a pleasure to hear from all these wonderful people about the fabulous program you are about to embark upon. I couldn’t help but hear the pride in every response I read. I hope you take their wisdom to heart and put their expertise to work. They all wish you well.

Welcome to a wonderful program, clearly full of wonderful peers!


Dear Sher is a regular Self Help Builder News feature. If you have a question you would like answered or researched by Sher, please send them to asisco@rcac.org and your question may be featured in a future publication.