People mostly know Habitat for Humanity for building homes for people who couldn't otherwise afford them.

A combination of donated labor, money and materials transforms a vacant lot into a home for a needy family, with the future homeowners contributing labor to the project.

Charleston's Habitat chapter has built more than 70 new homes since its inception in 1989.

Maybe less well-known is its repair program, where it works with homeowners to make repairs costing up to $20,000.

But there's a relatively new program that involves a three-way partnership with Habitat, the city of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation to renovate old homes instead of building new ones.

About 100 people involved gathered at 159 Romney St. on Wednesday to celebrate the completion of only the second home rebuild-renovation completed under the project.

Lifelong resident

The former freedman's cottage where Sandra Miller was born and raised is now the place she wants to live in for the rest of her life, but she couldn't say that a year and a half ago.

Vanessa Brown knew her friend needed help the day Miller told her the rain was coming through the light fixture. Looking now at pictures from July 2011, Brown said that even though the two women are close, she didn't realize how badly the home was in need of repairs.

The city's department of housing and community development got the ball rolling and then the other partners stepped in to preserve and renovate the 1,128-square-foot house, which had two additions, the newest being the one in most need of help.

“Being able to find help with the city and Habitat for Humanity has been such a huge blessing,” Miller said.

A better rebuild

It takes nearly three times as long to rehab and preserve a historic home as it does to build one from the ground up, Habitat construction manager Dan Jones said, but it's important work. Particularly in the upper peninsula, the temptation would be to tear down instead of to rehab, and where gentrification could reduce or eliminate affordable housing and push people out of their lifelong neighborhoods.

Jones offered special thanks to The Thursday Crew, four retired gentlemen who serve as his core group of workers once a week.

Bob Day, Herman Roden and Gene Lungrin were there Wednesday to point out some of their handiwork. A fourth member, Art Conrad, couldn't attend but had been an integral part of the project.

Roden is a Habitat board member; Day was a board member when he lived in Florida; and Lungrin, a former shop teacher and trades instructor, is the longest-serving member of the group. All bring construction and rehabilitation skills to the table. They are there to focus and occasionally improve on the enthusiastic volunteer efforts that help build or in this case rebuild a house.

Day points out that the foundation and roof were professionally installed, but everything in between was done by Habitat volunteers.

The renovation should lead to lower energy bills. An on-demand water heater, insulation in the walls, under the house and in the attic, high-efficiency air conditioning units and new or improved windows all make the home more energy-efficient. It's not airtight, Day points out, but it's a lot better than before.

There's a lot to like about being able to remain in your neighborhood, where your family and your roots are, but not having to live like it's 1919 to do it.

“I will take care of this home,” Miller told the crowd gathered in her home Wednesday.

There was no doubt among her houseguests that she would.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com