The birth of standardization
Our stop in Clinton wasn’t just about the changes in the millwork industry due to advances in technology. It was really a study of the consequences (often unseen) that resulted from leaps in technology. The technological leap that took place in Clinton, Iowa in 1870 was ultimately the result of the Industrial Revolution. Other leaps for homes occurred as power tools came on the job, and these leaps continue today as computer controlled machines (CNC) take over our shops and mills. It is a strange and ironic fact that an increased level of technology and the increase use of technology in building does not necessarily lead to higher quality or more beautiful homes.
A Note from the Publisher:
This is the second part of a two-part excerpt from Brent Hull‘s latest book, Building a Timeless House in an Instant Age. The first excerpt explored the technological advances that fueled the lumber industry in the United States. This second article will delve into the consequences of those technological advances.
My friend Steven Mouzon pointed out to me that the world’s greatest and longest lasting buildings were built during a time of very low technology. The Greek and Roman temples and the Gothic cathedrals of Europe that still stand despite centuries of neglect are a testament to the craftsmen and building traditions of those cultures. These buildings were built without computers, AutoCAD, or other modern “advantages,” and yet the fact that their buildings were made with hand tools ought to humble as well as inspire us. Though we are technologically advanced, we must be careful that we don’t equate technological advancement with cultural achievement. Certainly their buildings stand as greater cultural achievements than ours. Have we built a building in the last fifty years that will be here for two thousand years or even two hundred years?
Advancements and improving technology is intoxicating; it puffs forward like a great train, burning and releasing some hypnotic fumes. We all become convinced that, as we pick up speed and travel farther, this headlong rush forward can yield only good things.
Yet, I argue that technological advancements in homebuilding actually lead to uglier, poorly constructed homes.
Because we use technology as an end instead of mean, it has a dynamic impact on craft and design. It is a great irony that the improvements in the technology of building actually work to lessen the quality of craft—they cripple the ability of craftsmen and dull the senses of design. It is no wonder that the higher our level of technology, the shorter our homes seem to last and the more similar they look. The rise of the millwork industry at the end of the 19th century highlights the effect of new technology on design and craft in building. As technology advances, it does so with a stamp of efficiency that, by its very nature, kills design and craft. That stamp is called standardization.
Technology is improved when a system or process has been enhanced. We “advance” when we find a way to streamline the method of production so that the work is either more precise or built faster, or both. Henry Ford improved the process of building a car by simplifying the design and the steps. He standardized the production of cars. His famous line was, “You can have it in any color you want as long as it’s black.” This highlights his focus on standardization. Standardizing a process is “improving” it by simplification, thus making the process faster. In some ways, standardization is the very essence of improved technology.
Standardization, though the key to improved technology, is the enemy of the timeless house.
We may best see the challenges and dangers of advanced technology by studying a door. The mills in Clinton produced hundreds of doors each day by industrializing the construction of a door, by mechanizing the hand-made steps. Instead of a hand-cut mortise and tenon joint, they invented machines that cut mortises and milled tenons. Before they could build the machines to cut and shape these parts, they first had to standardize doors. In doing so, they standardized door parts. Once the parts were a standard size, they could then build dedicated machines to cut the parts and pieces at an industrialized pace.
One has only to compare millwork catalogs from 1890 to those in 1920—the standardization of millwork is apparent and obvious. My first book, Historic Millwork, actually chronicled and compared millwork catalogs from 1870 to 1940. The very first standardized catalogs, organized by the Sash, Door and Blind manufacturers, were produced in 1890. About every ten years, doors, windows, and moldings changed to reflect changing styles of architecture. These changes also reflected the imposed standardization by manufacturers. A simple count of molding profiles in the 1892 catalog numbers 495 unique molding profiles—crowns, bases, casings, etc. By 1927, the number of moldings had shrunk to 208, and door and window profiles that might typically reflect over 20 varieties together, were narrowed down to five varieties.
As a door manufacturer myself, I know that changing profiles on machines takes time. It is easier and more efficient to run 5,000 feet of a molding than to run 50 feet. It is easier to only offer 20 molding profiles than 200.
But just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is better. Ultimately we run the risk of building houses that look stale and monotonous.
Today we can see the result of letting manufacturing “improvements” drive design. A hundred years ago, doors were made from solid wood with parts that were milled into unique shapes, and then joined together. Today, we have doors whose face is made from embossed plastic that is then glued to a fiber composite core. It is a mold of a door; it is picture of what a door once was. We end up with a much less expensive product, which looks like a door, but is actually just a cheap mold. More efficient yes, but not better.
This example carried forward to every other product in the house. Bad habits were born, and they have had deep consequences. Technological advancement has prohibited and hampered our ability to design and our ability to craft. Design has become a vague copy, a Xerox of something from the past, and craft has become obsolete. Though we have “improved” the construction of a door, or moldings or walls, we are not improved.
The joy of a well-made product and the value of something that is well-crafted and well-designed is being lost.
A well-made product not only gives joy and satisfaction to the designer and maker but to the end user as well. Ultimately, as we cheapen the products of our lives through improved efficiency, we become a culture that has no ability to gauge or judge beauty or value. This ends up costing us our very souls. Just because we have “improved” our products, I’m not convinced we are better off.
When the lumber kings of Clinton transitioned our nation from a handmade era into a machine-made era, they had no idea of the consequences we would face for design and craft over a hundred years later. Ultimately this loss of design and craft has greatly restricted our ability to build timeless houses. It started when the task of design was pulled away from the craftsman and taken on by the manufacturer. The manufacturer, especially today, has a great deal of design control. Yet the manufacturer is not often trained in design, and many see design as an obstacle that trips up efficiency. Naturally, manufacturers care more about standardization and ease of manufacturing than they do about design. And as we introduce computers to the mix, we are soon limited by the “library” of design tools installed on our machines—two moldings, or three doors, or six windows. If you don’t know better, or don’t care to pay for a library of customized add-ons, then the limits of a computer-drafting program will now determine and “standardize” the products in our home.
There are many manufacturers today whose design is driven by the bounds of their technology. If their machine can’t do it, they won’t try. If the machine can do it, they make it by the mile. There are many building and architectural products on the market that have no design or historic precedent but are being sold as if they are reproductions of something from the past.
Technology, by definition, standardizes. It makes the complex simple. It reduces and refines in order to increase speed and efficiency. This standardization is the antithesis of creativity and design.
How can technology not stifle design? By nature, they are opposites. We must strike a balance. Technology is a drug that must be carefully prescribed. Technology driven design strives for the cheapest products, built as fast as possible. It is no wonder our houses are termed “cookie cutter”—they are literally cut from the same efficient mold.
New technology causes additional problems, beginning with the challenge to craftsmanship. Advanced technology naturally requires and forces us to need less skill; we pick up a nail gun, and we aren’t as good with a hammer. Manufacturers are actively working to make products that don’t require skill to install. Yet at the same time, the manufacturer’s biggest headache is poor craftsmanship on the job. Ask them and they will tell you the main reason their products fail is due to improper installation. I have been astounded by the various companies I have worked and consulted with who tell me that 80-90% of their warranty headaches could be solved with better craftsmanship.
Realize that the manufacturers solution is not to train and improve craftsmanship, but rather to re-engineer their product so that it is easier to install or impervious to failure. Making it easier to install means making it easy enough for a homeowner. In other words, make it so easy that it requires no skill or training to install; these products “snap” in place or just glue down. If they can’t find a solution for “idiot-proof” installation, they then resort to making products that won’t warp, or rot, or fail. Inevitably we are tripping over ourselves trying to make indestructible products that are bad for our environment. But if we just taught craftsmen how to pitch a window sill to divert water away from the building, then many of these products would be unnecessary.
It is a cruel spiral of sinking craftsmanship that is kicked down at each turn. How did we become such dull dolts? A two hundred-year perspective shows us we have forgotten how to sharpen our tools because steel blades are disposable. We have forgotten how to read the grain of the wood because power tools make it unnecessary. We have forgotten how a door is built because we don’t need to know—we don’t build anything because everything is pre-made, pre-hung, and pre-finished. It is no wonder we have forgotten how to pitch a window sill. The consequences of advances in technology are overwhelming, and it is a strange irony that as technology advances craftsmanship retreats.
This conundrum is prickly because better tools do make work easier; a hammer makes it easier to drive a nail. The early planers and molders vastly improved speed, quality, and ease of turning raw lumber into a finished product. In theory, in 1870, the workman could pull himself away from the drudgery or monotony of the work and could focus on the beauty of building. However, fast forward a generation or two, and we realize that we aren’t nearly as skilled as our fathers or grandfathers.
Ultimately our ability to craft and build timeless homes will be limited by the skills of craftsmen.
For the last two hundred years, we have been improving our building technology, and yet we have neglected the craftsman’s ability, and we have neglected his role in building, craft, and design. At one point, in the late 1800s, technological advancements were in perfect harmony with the craftsman’s skill. The machine complimented the craftsman’s skills and improved his quality of building. However, because technology hinders craft, they are now not complimenting one another but pulling against one another. Now technology is attempting to overcome craft’s deficiencies and weaknesses. At some point this process will break down.
Based on our current trajectory, technology is only going to improve and craftsmanship is going to continue to deteriorate. The challenge for all trades is not to become too reliant on tools and technology. We become so dependent on tools we forget the easier path, or easiest path, because of technology habits and addictions. A technology habit is getting stuck in a method of work that demands advanced technology. I’ve seen carpenters who say they can’t hang a door because they don’t have their hinge jig. Or they can’t put up trim because they don’t have a nail gun, or work stops because the battery on our drill dies. While it seems work is faster with these tools, we are assembling homes no faster than they were built a hundred years ago.
A builder gets a call from a client that some trim has come loose. He sends his trim carpenter back to a job to nail it back on. The carpenter arrives, spends fifteen minutes unloading his tools, unwrapping his hoses, and getting out his extension cords just to pop two nails into a loose piece of trim. He then spends another fifteen minutes loading up the tools. All this production and show because he has “forgotten” he could have been finished in less than a minute with a hammer and trim nail. The truth is that a good carpenter with a hammer could nail just as fast, and maybe more efficiently (because we use fewer nails) than a carpenter with a nail gun. Balance is the key.
A timeless house does not rely solely on new technology for its products or construction methods. It is crafted with a unique combination of products and skill in such a way that it is built to last. Most of these skills are grounded in historic method. If we look back over the last three hundred years and study the iconic house forms that inspire and stimulate our imagination—English cottages, French Chateaus, Mediterranean villas, American Palladian homes, the vernacular farm house, and many, many more—they all tell a story of a time and place and tradition that communicates ideals we aspire to. All of these styles are built with regional materials, designed by local tradition thorough climatic demands, and crafted with time-tested building traditions. They didn’t rely on new technology to improve their form or function.
Technology is moving so fast today we can’t even wait a generation before we change materials to the next new “wonder” product. The Asbestos siding of the 1930s turns into the aluminum siding of the 50s, to the vinyl in the 70s, to concrete and plastic today. Each one is “installed” in a different manner, they are not complimentary, and they require throwing out the old to move forward. Each new product makes the last one obsolete. This takes us to a place where we have no building tradition. Ultimately it means we have no methods or style to properly tell our story.
A timeless house is made from products that don’t rely on advanced technology.
The problem with the metal siding of the 50s was that, if you added onto your house, there would be no one making the same metal siding, so you can’t add on to your home without making it look like an addition. Either you change all the siding on your home, which is expensive and wasteful, or you add on and try to disguise the addition in another way. By contrast, two hundred years ago, an addition was often invisible because it was easy to match the same regional stone or siding pattern, and because the required skill level was easy. It isn’t easy today.
The Industrial Revolution and the Iowa mills have taken the craft of hand-making doors and windows away from craftsmen and instead supplied them, ready-made, into the bins of a local lumberyard. The process and change happened so fast, and was such a celebrated leap forward, that everyone, including the carpenters and builders, cheered them on while it happened. This “advancement” of technology, though cheered and admired at the time, has led to dire consequences for us. It has turned the skill of the craftsman into the process of installation. Doors that were once built part by part and then installed and trimmed with wood and hardware, are now pre-built, pre-hung, pre-finished, and ready to install. We have made craft obsolete.
Ironically, if left to do it again, we wouldn’t do it any differently, just like we wouldn’t go back to timber framing houses as a standard.
The key to harnessing the technological advances is in balancing choice while still pushing for improvements and better products.
Technology is not the enemy, but it must be combatted; left alone, it is detrimental to the quality and beauty of our homes, and ultimately it is detrimental to our lives. To build a timeless house today, there must be a blend of timeless products. The best houses today are those that find a wonderful blend between craft, design, and timeless products, while at the same time enjoying the advantages of better technology.