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.
As I near retirement after 40 years in construction, I am finding it harder every day to “convince” my customers that newer is not always better. Call-backs increase, learning how to install “the latest and greatest” becomes a waste of time because something new is here tomorrow and more often than not, once the newness wears out the customer becomes bored with all of the bells and whistles.
I grow tired of repairing two million dollar, 7,000 square foot houses when they could have built a two million dollar 2,500 square foot house that would last for a hundred years. Our craft is becoming homogenized, sanitized and overly complicated. Low quality products, lack of skilled trades people and customers who insist on every conceivable amenity for a tract home budget are ruining pride of craftsmanship.
Thanks for reading and commenting. The point of the book is that we have forgotten how to build. We have lost the “Art of Building”. We are fooled by new technology into thinking it makes us better.
If you buy my book and read the chapter on Production building, you’ll understand that I think many of these 7000 sqft houses are really just tract homes on steroids. They are not “better” houses just because they are large.
I agree with everything you have written. Unfortunately, you may be preaching to the choir. The marketplace and the almighty dollar rule, and the majority of clients this article seems to address speak with their wallet, not their heads or sense of design.
Steven- The same thing was said in the late 60’s/early 70’s when people like Tedd Benson, Richard Babcock, Jack Sobon and on and on were reviving the ‘lost’ art of true timber framing. I believe that most clients don’t know enough about these things. It remains up to us to also continue to educate our clients about lost ideas of durability, resilience, proportion, true curb appeal and craft—not the ‘kraft’ from 4-color brochures, but craftsmanship/craft.
Ed Latson—–with some grey hair and was taught to build by those old guys to build everything “….true, plumb. level, square and looks good.”
I believe you are correct. It takes us, the builders and craftsmen, continually educating our clients about quality and craft for them to understand. NO ONE is spreading this message. Let it start with the craftsmen who still appreciate the art of building and we will begin to see change.
Thanks for reading. We face real challenges convincing the homeowner not to work on their house like they shop at Walmart. The consumer is trained to look for the cheapest price. It works for buying shampoo, not on homes.
Mr. Hull writes: “It is no wonder that the higher our level of technology, the shorter our homes seem to last and the more similar they look.”
While reading this sentence, it struck me that this phenomena is not unique to the home building industry, but includes the automobile industry as well. Maybe personal computers too? Could it apply to just about everything man endeavors to “craft”?
That is a great insight, and the more I read, the more I believe it does cross into other industries. Food, may be the most obvious one. I recently read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where the author Pollan, talks about the farms of Iowa and how they have changed.
It is the over-industrialization of our lives that makes most things disposable. Unfortunately, our houses and even tools are falling into this black hole.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
While I am aware that I am most likely preaching to the choir, I am fortunate enough at this late time in my career that I can “pick” my clients and not the other way around. Always do the best you can and never compromise, you will be rewarded.
Brent…….WOW!! I don’t know where to start…. Your chapter could have been taken from any of the William Morris tomes of the 1800’s; from any Arts and Crafts shop of the turn of the last century–in almost any industrialized country in the world–or from Mother Earth News or The Whole Earth Catalogue from the 1960’s (MY tomes for my times). I feel like I could also write a book on your keen observations, but I will simply say this:
“Touché!!! Somehow each and every carpenter-to-be should be taught history–the history of our splendid craft; the history of tools and their making; wood and how it ‘works’; European, Asian and American building history; class trips to local historic
buildings; a trip to Europe to visit and walk through a 1500’s cottage in England that is still being lived in. I applaud you for your chutzpah, your spot on description of our ‘industries’ deficiencies (what happened to our craft, our trade ?????–it’s become ‘our industry’!!!!!).
This book would best be mandatory reading for ALL carpenters and builders—regardless of age, experience or degree of expression for our exquisite trade of building and design.
Ed Latson–college student turned trade school guru/carpenter’s helper since 1973 and design/build company since 1980….
Thanks Ed, to be lumped in with those leaders is humbling. I agree whole heartedly, we need to learn to fight for our craft, fight for craftsmanship and continually educate our clients in the process.
We are apart of a craft with a tremendously rich tradition. If we were more aware of it, we would fight with more pride.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
A nice articulation of a situation we hope that we and programs similar to ours are addressing with our students. They often have an intense interest in craft, quality and the legacy of the tradespeople who came before – there does seem to be a reaction against the onslaught of product, consumption and convenience.
A significant battle our graduates can face though is the education of the client or even the employer to see the value of durable, maintainable, repairable buildings and the of labour and training required to accomplish this.
At the same time several grads have been hired by production shops (e.g. CNC door fabrication) because of their understanding of traditional methods – they can produce custom work and fix production errors far more effectively than the computer programmers can.
Andrew Pamenter – instructor – Heritage Carpentry Program Algonquin College, Perth
More discussion of similar ideas, particularly the value of skilled trades can be found here:
Thanks for commenting. I agree and think the value of tradition is huge. I went to the American version of your school, the North Bennett St. School in Boston. My training in historic preservation, defined and continues to shape the way I think about building. This type of training should be invaluable for a company that only knows how to build what the CAD library offers.
On a side note, I’m curious if you know my cousin Hugh Hull. He went through your school 10-15 years ago. He has a great business in Winnipeg.
Hugh was just before my time but is remembered by our librarian – she has the uncanny ability to be on top of virtually every subject. Your book was already ordered when I asked her about it after your first installment and is on the shelves now.
Fantastic. I hope it helps your students. Thanks so much. Let me know if you need a guest speak some time. I would love to see your facilities.
I think your insights are well taken, but there is also much that seems unrealistic.
Some of our buildings today will last centuries, the same as buildings in the past.
Most of our buildings will not last – same as those built in the past.
The Roman Pantheon has stood for 2,000 years, but the hundreds of thousands of houses for common people that surrounded it are long gone.
It is fine to talk about hand made doors and trim. What carpenter today is willing to work for the pennies per hour that it takes to make them affordable to most people?
One of the factors in architectural style you didn’t mention is limitations. Colonial Phila style grew out of exteriors limited to brick. Tudor was born from timber frame and wattle and daub as the most economically efficient materials.
The good and bad of our time is that we can do anything. There are no limits other than price. So how do you design when you can do anything?
The basic economy house today becomes drywall on the inside with factory trim, vinyl outside, and asphalt shingle roof. They are not the Hermitage, but they are a heck of a lot more comfortable than the shacks, shanties and tenements that most common people have inhabited throughout history.
For those with more money, we can build a house in any style imaginable. We can build in tudor style ( but of course, who wants wattle and daub walls now days?)
Out of your points, there is one criticism I totally agree with. In a time when we can build anything, why do we do build what we do?
I work in an upscale neighborhood, with no shortage of money. Out of all the houses I’ve seen built around here, I find only a handful attractive. “With all the money they spent”, I often wonder, “Why did they design a house like that?”
Rather than focus on hand made, pre industrial work, I think builders today can make the greatest difference through emphasis on proportion, style and aesthetics. In this way, we can get the most out of whatever price range in which we build
Thanks for reading and challenging the ideas. I’m curious and would like to challenge you back. Please name one building today (built in the last 10 years) that will last even for 1/2 a century, to say nothing of 2000 years. I curious which one you would choose. If your working in the high-end then you may be working on houses that are well-built, but the differences is that the ancient buildings like the coliseum, or the Parthenon stood for hundreds of years, completely neglected. There is nothing we are building today that can stand looted and neglected and not fall down very quickly.
If you read the entire book, I think you will find you and I are on the same page regarding design and style aesthetics. It is dreadful today and if we all knew more about design, we would have better houses in all price ranges.
Thanks again for reading and commenting.
With all due respect, the examples you are using to measure our modern structures of today against are anomalies not easily replicated. Not only in their shear massivity, but also in the socioeconomic environment under which they were created.
Scott writes above: “It is fine to talk about hand made doors and trim. What carpenter today is willing to work for the pennies per hour that it takes to make them affordable to most people?”
Thus he brings up a vital point not covered in the excerpt published in this forum. That is, many substantial structures that have withstood the test of time were built under the auspices of forced (ii.e. slave) labor. When you’re forced to work for pennies (or free) by the hour, I call that slave labor. I believe it was slave labor that augmented the skills of professional architects and engineers enough to make it an economically viable undertaking to erect thee architectural wonders we use as ‘gold standards’. In fact, without it, I venture to say that most of them probably would never have been built at all.
For example, I live in VA. Thomas Jefferson’s private residence (Monticello) and George Washington’s (Mount Vernon) were substantial structures that were both built with a large contingent of slave labor. In fact, our own Capital building in Washington D.C. was proved by Congress to show that slave labor played a large part in its construction. It’s also the forced patronage of the ubiquitous taxpayer that enables engineering and architectural marvels to continue. With regard to your challenge, I will cite one structure that has been built within the past ten years that will mostly likely stand the test of time: That is the new Woodrow Wilson bridge spanning the Potomac from VA to MD right outside of Washington D.C. In my opinion the only thing that made the building of this substantial (and relatively graceful) bridge possible was the subsidization (and really credit) of the American Taxpayer. Just like the ongoing maintenance of the Washington Monument (which probably would have crumbed to ruins by now if left to the druthers of mother nature) the taxpayer props it up and subsidizes the ongoing improvements and repairs necessary to keep it visibly strong and safe. Some may recall the 5.7 earthquake registered here a few years ago that closed it down for repairs taking years to complete. No private individual or corporation would make this endeavor. I believe that is the case with the Coliseum and the Parthenon as well. They were built, in large part, by forced labor and their current maintenance is subsidized by the taxpayer. In a way, the tax payer is a slave to these structures.
I am not saying that slave labor is the only avenue to achieve fine architectural precedent. But when it is not, then it’s usually accomplished by the filthy rich who have the means to mimic the effect. I’m talking here about estates built by our industrial barons such as George W. Vanderbuilt and William Randolph Hearst (The Biltmore & Hearst Castle respectively). Maybe Bill Gates’s own personal residence registers here as well. I don’t , know because I’ve never been there or studied it. At any rate, the stratosphere of potential spending among these individuals are few and far between.
My point? It’s not that we no longer desire or appreciate quality craftsmanship , but rather that we fail to recognize (or at least give homage to) the entirely different socioeconomic circumstances by which our “gold standards” of architecture have been accomplished under… and by which our own personal and modern efforts are currently judged .
Thanks for the comments. While I don’t agree with your statement, that old buildings have an advantage because of slave labor, I agree that the cost of labor was much cheaper historically and fine craftsmanship was much more readily available. 100 years ago, it wasn’t slave labor that built the great houses of the gilded age, but immigrant labor.
As for your example of Jefferson, there is a great book called: Thomas Jefferson, Architect, that does a great job of laying out how he built and who helped him, yes some slaves, but many master builders as well. I think Jefferson is a great model for building today, as so much of what he did was train and teach and educate those around him about great design.
I also must say that I’m excited to share and spur on a discussion about how long homes should last, and where the problems lie. What a great and worthy discussion that needs to be taking place.
Without intending to be too self-serving. I would encourage you to buy my book and read the whole story. The Technology chapter is just one part of the problem, I have chapters on production building, the architect and design in general. I think you guys will appreciate what I lay out. And I would look forward to your feedback on my blog. http://www.thetimelesshouse.com
Thanks again for commenting to this important issue.
The challenge is not to build every building to last a thousand years neglected. And both of you are right, but you fail to see that materials bs environment are key features in making a building last. There are many ghost towns in the American west that have literally stood for a hundred years unoccupied. The difference is that the dry climate preserved the wood except where there was ground contact. And the early settlers in places like Tin Cup, Colorado knew enough to set the houses up on stone.
The Greek and Roman ruins are made of stone. The weight of which necessitated good foundations which made them last.
Who is to say that our buildings will not last today?
I’m not so sure about helical piles or building on stilts, but barring catastrophe, who can say that our buildings won’t last? I live in an 1850s farmhouse in VT. It is probably under built by today’s engineering standards using 2 1/2″ x 5″ joists 24″oc in an area with some seismic activity and high snow loads. The floor has some deflection and it’s not perfectly straight, but it has lasted well, has it not?
The thing that most stands out in your chapter is the cookie cutter nature of building today. It is easy to install finger jointed white trim, but when discussing options in the homes I build, I emphasize the “timeless” design and proportion may be a bit more now for my clients, but they won’t look dated in 30 years.
I think that the Greeks lasting lessons is not in how to build, but in how to design. How to use proportion to size trim details and balance architectural lines. Just because we can do it, does a home really need gables and dormers and a complicated design? Or is simple really better?
I agree the lessons we need to take from the classical period is how to design. This lost art of building is found in their traditions and methods of design. It was all proportioned and scaled perfectly.
The ruins of many of our city centers will likely be here 2000 years from now. Some of the buildings will likely be intact.
Most homes built today will last 50 years. That is not difficult. The advances in building science help guarantee that.
I’ve worked on 50+ yr old homes that started as fisherman’s shacks – 2×3 walls with scrap lumber sheathing from packing crates and broken up furniture.
Most older homes I’ve worked on have problems. Foundations settle, windows leak air so much it feels like a wind tunnel during winter storms. Roofs with 3×4 rafters, 24″ centers are common in older buildings here. The newer homes don’t have these problems. Our structural understanding is much more advanced.
Newer houses will have their problems. I don’t expect most windows to last anywhere near as long as the old sash made from old growth wood. But overall, I think todays house is superior to it’s equivalent from the past.
I’m not a full time wood worker, but we see the same requirement for push button “instant” perfection in other industries as well. I work most of my time fixing very large computer system implementations. Usually because the project did not want to pay to have it crafted correctly up front. It looks good, lights blink, but only garbage comes out.
I am never surprised anymore when they give an automated tool that will “do it all” to a rookie, who has gone to “a” training class, and the rookie is expected to be as good, or better, then someone who has had 30 year of craftsmen experience. It almost never works out as sold to the customer. There are many people who want to get to the end without paying for the middle parts. Yes there are talented people who have tremendous skills that are great Journeymen, But it still takes a craftsmen to give the direction and to make sure it gets done right. No amount of pre assembly, fixing after it gets built, or following the project plan will repalce the touch of the masters hand. I make a very nice living fixing problems that the push button guys created or don’t know how to fix, because they don’t know the middle stuff, or how it all fits together.
I like a nicely crafted things, my wife and I took 2 years to build a home a few years back, as we wanted it done right. There were several times we had to have work redone, because it was not done right. And there were many things toward the finishing stage we did ourselves, built in’s, specialized flooring, cabinets. And no, we are not living with crooked cabinets. We did them, and they are perfect in fit (me) and finish (Thank you dear). We did not want to build a 30 day wonder, and then spend the next 10 years fixing it. My bother has one of those, and is spends a lot of weekends getting it right.
There is still a huge place for the craftsmen in any industry, we may get tools to help get some of the bulk stuff done quickly, but you still have to have people who know how it should be done, so the right tool is used, so it is right when it gets finished.
Have yet to see a work flow analyst or a project manager, and a packaged tool get anything right without hands on experience doing the work. I have yet to see anything get delivered that was an “on time”, “on budget”, item that was not a piece of junk. It keeps this graying one fully employed, with my old school knowledge.
Keep these articles coming love to see how other in other industries face the same problems. We must be correct, after all, we have apposing digit. hehehe
Nice commentary. You are exactly right. Craftsmanship and experience always pay.
You have outlined a clear path to what our industry has become, unfortunately there is probably not a a path back to craftsmanship in home construction. There are several contributing reasons that this is unlikely. First is demand, asking contractors to educate consumers is similar to asking patients to study medicine prior to visiting a doctor. They seek a doctor to tell them what to do, just as they seek an architect to tell them what their house should be. Herein lies the place where the majority of the blame should lie, architects influence home buyers and architects have failed for a considerable period of time to influence consumers to pursue craftsmanship. In their defense how many people today can make anything? The homes you allude to the finish carpenters could make, if not the entire mill package, then a sample of what they thought looked good right on the jobsite, just look at any joiners tool chest from that period and the answer will present itself. The break in a work force which was skilled in hand work occurred in 1941, it is unlikely to reappear.
Another contributing factor is the real estate market. People tend not the build houses for their own enjoyment, most are built with an eye toward re-sale. How many people who build a house today expect to spend the rest of their lives there? If that is a consideration then it becomes more understandable that short cuts will be taken. Framing and sheet-rock are cheap while the mill-package and finishes are expensive. Look at any real estate flyer and it will list square footage and number of bathrooms.
It would be nice if quality and craftsmanship were to re-appear but it may be awhile. Even if the consumer wanted it, a entire of generation of Buy-Cut-and Nail workers would have to be re-trained.
A good point and a good challenge- re-education. I don’t think it is a hopeless task, but rather a great and worthy challenge.
I would be curious to hear your thoughts on architects after you read about their development in the chapter I devote to them.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
I enjoyed reading your book last night, it is a subject matter which needs more discussion. Most homes built in the last 70 odd years are unlikely to be admired by future generations. It is nice to daydream that things will improve for the average American home but the proliferation of MDF, aluminum windows and products like it would tend to discount the likelihood.
While I agree with the vast majority of what you wrote we diverge sharply on who should bear the responsibility for knowing how and in what manner a house should be built.
The last chapter is a guide for the consumer to protect oneself from an industry which is undereducated. Although it may be prudent for the consumer to do so I again state that the blame lies with the architect/builder and not the consumer. Given that the industry rewards architects more for doing commercial work than residential work does that excuse the architect who accepts residential work from doing poor work? Architectural schools are fairly recent development and are not teaching traditional design therefore should an architect be excused because it was not taught at the school which was attended? As noted books on the subject have been around for a much longer period of time. If a person hires a production builder to build a home then you have a pretty good idea of the product you will receive. If however you hire an architect to design a custom home you will have to provide the architect with enough information to understand what is desired and not feel required as you suggest to purchase 50 or more books on the subject, spend the 1000+ hours studying them and then if the budget allows spend a couple of weeks touring homes from the part of the world you wish to emulate. If a person has that degree of interest in the topic that person may have wished to become an architect/builder in the first place.
I feel that the consumers experience should be more similar to the person who wanted a pool house for the 60’s ranch house. They had a pretty good idea of what they wanted the space to accommodate and you had the knowledge to provide a product which met their needs and had a good design. In short you were the paid professional who did the homework and did not rely on the client to do so.
Thanks so much for your comments. Thanks too for reading the book. When I was writing the book, I struggled for a while who to write this book for, the industry, the architects, the builders or the clients. I settled on the clients, because I think that change in building will not happen until the homeowner demands better quality or more beauty. Until the consumer demands it, the builder and architect won’t provide it.
I agree with you that the responsibility does not lie with the client, but the client must educated to a point that he knows what to ask for.
When I speak on this subject, I often say that “the builder thinks because his houses sell, they are well-designed; the homeowner assumes that because it was built, somebody must have designed it.” Neither statement are true. The builder reasons that he doesn’t need to hire an architect or pay for better design because his houses sell and thus proves they are well-designed. The homeowner, who doesn’t know anything, sees the end product and reasons, it must have been designed, or it couldn’t have been built.
I agree with you that the builders and architects must encourage better quality and design, unfortunately it is hard to bring about change unless the consumer starts to demand better houses.
I look forward to your thoughts.
First thank you for the history lesson and encouraging other to study and respect our past. There have been some great comments on both sides of the craftsmanship issue and both seem, to me at least, to be valid.
I often think and expound upon the knowledge or lack of, about using the correct material for the best performance. We are subjected to use what is readily available and accepted as the right materials because the manufactures and supplier say so.
When was the last time you heard of the architect determining that the best lumber for maximum performance, energy conservation (from harvest to end use with maintenance) visually appeal and maximum strength to size were even considered in design? Or that a roof with many hip valley and flashing details should be avoided to make the roof do what it is supposed to do keep thing beneath it dry?
We see many things (some good some bad) but most of all we see a loss of knowledge that will be lost forever if do nothing to document and teach it to future generations. So things like of all things, YouTube, may be one of the blessing of technology to help us preserve old tools, there use and purpose as well as an understanding of adaption of materials, there original adaptions and implantation and changes through time.
I too rude the day when the carpenter can’t function because their calculator doesn’t work and he can’t figure the roof cuts without it. But I’m also am excited for the opportunities that will be available to the TRUE future craftsman and the pay and prestige they will earn. Like all thing in life, things work best with balance and balance is tough to maintain.
I look forward to reading your book. And would like to talk with you about an opportunity to be a guest speaker.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I would be honored to come speak and talk about these ideas. I am pretty passionate about the opportunity we have as builders and craftsmen to change the direction of design and home construction.
Thanks for your desire to read the book. If you would like to order it from me, I’ll be sure to inscribe it for you. http://www.thetimelesshouse.com
Just read your article from “Period Homes” of March 2010 called “A Fight for Craftsmanship.” Since this neatly dovetails with your new book (the Prologue is excellent by the way) and the concepts of man/machine and craft/CNC, et al do you continue to feel the same way about your owning CNC machinery for your own shop? I don’t mean to suggest that we should all become 21st century Luddites, but for you and your shop, where do you draw the line?
Craft and the touch, the feel of the freshly honed blade, the crisp curl of shavings, the coordination between hand and eye as we follow the pencil line…….I think many people-our clients- are hungry for the expressions by the’ hand of man’ and these were the same arguments for the return of craft back in the late 60’s/early 70’s—again, because of The Machine. I guess at a certain age you start to see the return of old ideas in a new cycle.
Yes, I still feel the same way, but also recognize there will come a day when we will own a CNC machine. They are effective tools and have their place. I just haven’t found that place in our shop yet.
Its interesting you bring up the Luddites. There is value in resisting the pull of technology. It is careful balance but if you can hold onto the benefits and value the handmade, with the efficiency of new machinery, there is a wonderful sweet spot. I’m not sure I’ve found it yet, but I’ll be sure to write about it if we do.
Thanks for your thoughts.
I agree this topic needs further discussion. Particulary because I’d like to challenge you on your position that any one group within society bears the responsibility to cultivate a desire or appreciation for fine craftsmanship. To the contrary, I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility. I have been to architecture school. I disagree with your thesis that architectural schools should bear the bulk of the responsibility and that the blame lay in your presumption that our architectural schools are a “fairly recent development”. From what I have seen in my travels around the world, they have been in effect in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East for hundreds, if not thousands of years. They may not all be what we know as western style schools where you can visit a registar’s office and look up student records, but I imagine students of architecture have been learning to build in an academic setting for a long, long time. If you’re simply talking about the U.S., then of course, our country was only establish less than 250 years ago with most accredited universities being less than a century old. But that doesn’t mean we were pulling architectural principles out of thin air just because we are a relatively new country. We borrowed, as in most cases, much of what came before us. I can tell you that the school of architecture under which I was taught was based on the well respected modern Bauhaus principles that flourished under the Weimar Republic established in Germany in 1919. In fact, one of my professors was a direct descendent of a founding member of that school. And those professors (Klee, Kandisky, Breuer, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Graf, etc.) borrowed heavily from those that came before them.
I’ll also take exception to what you characterize as architecture schools not teaching “traditional design”. What does that even mean? “Tradition” evolves on a continuum. You don’t bottle it up and teach it as a class. I was not even taught how to “draw” while at university (this was on the cusp of PC’s). That was not part of the architectural curriculum. You were expected to learn that on your own or as a free elective as it was considered simply “homework”. I imagine it would be the same for what you call learning “traditional” design. Spending time learning or drawing details for one particular stylized architectural solution would essentially be a waste of valuable time and resources to our professors. We were primarily taught one thing: How to problem solve. The tools for doing that are myriad and ever changing. Everyone will utilize a unique set while achieving that goal. To try to cover every potential option would be futile.
Lastly, I have a question for you: What is the difference between “how” and “the manner in which” homes are built? Seems like those terms are virtually saying the same thing. Why make the distinction?
After reading the article and the comments, I am convinced that most here are really over romanticizing the past. Be careful lest you drown in your own hypocrisy. While I certainly wouldn’t call myself a “hack”, I know I am not the only one who has designed an ugly building or two and had to stretch a budget by utilizing less than best building methods. That is to say, while I may try to sway the wants of clients, ultimately I work for money not kudos. This is simply a hard fact that may be difficult to understand for those living in the theoretical world of rhetoric. The other fact is that most Americans are simply content with the quality (cost vs value) of their home. While those of us in the industry may scrutinize the quality of homes, the general populous could care less. I really don’t blame them either. Put this into perspective; it may take you 30+ years to save enough money to have a true quality built home constructed, yet you’ll probably die around 70 and unless you’re amish, it’s not likely your next of kin [and so on and so on] are passing that house down through the generations. So aside from the quick cash of the resale, what is the point? Sorry, I am just being realistic here.
I had to read all the way through the comments to find one that stated closely to how I felt in this matter.
You want fine crafted honest to goodness buildings, your journey starts at home. Lest we forget that most hard working people are scratching by and have not an inclination toward two hundred year longevity standards. Really, This is Carpentry is about carpenters, not pie in the sky writers patting themselves on the back.
Thanks for commenting. Again, I’m sorry if I’ve given the impression that this is a pie in the sky world. Like dreamcatcher, I know you haven’t read the whole book. It is laid out with a strong emphasis on history; how buildings were constructed, who built them, the rise of the production builder, how the architect is involved, etc. All of this history is meant to encourage us as working craftsmen and builders that there is more to our rich profession then many of us know.
Like I said to Dreamcatcher, I think we have a unique opportunity before us. I hope you will read the whole book before you pass it off as pie in the sky. All the ideas in the book are me relating from my own hard-knock school of experience.
Believe me, it is very real world. If you would like a copy, I’m happy to send you a free copy.
It would not be fair of me to base an opinion of the whole book after reading one chapter. Your belief that a new world of craft conscious consumers creating opportunities for carpenters to return to work with more glory is stationed from a viewpoint or shall I say vantage point that is not based in average America.
I live in a bedroom community that has seen a direct application of this rising craft awareness. There are cute little shops downtown, selling baked goods, local wines, craft beers, every flavored extra virgin olive oils, custom jewelry and what not.
The owners of these establishments are well heeled, retired executives, moviestars wives, wealthy people that have latched unto this pretentious following. They are crafting for pleasure without regard for monies generated to stay housed or fed. I would imagine that the clientele you seem to cater to falls under this very category. I consider craft a bit more closer to the ground.
I stated that a craftsperson needs not to venture away from his/her own home to be creative and I could see advantages to producing a society that captures this ideal. I find it a bit uppity to state that cookie cutter consumerism is tantamount to selling out any reasonable standard of living.
I did not say that old world craftsmanship should not be followed every chance that arrises, I am stating that for the average bloke it may only be available in a finer cup of coffee now and again.
You send the book and I will read it cover to cover.
How do we contact out side this dialogue box?
Thanks for commenting. I would like to clarify and few things.
First, I have no desire to romanticize the past. That was not my goal. I realize that not every 100-year-old building was great. I speak only from experience as my company does a lot of historic preservation work and when you study these buildings, how they were built and who built them, you gain respect for the craftsmen of the past, especially relative to their level of technology.
I’m not sure why you feel I work for kudos in a theoretical world of rhetoric. In fact, I have been building and remodeling for over 20 years. You can go to my website and see our work. http://www.hullhistorical.com. I employee about 25 guys and I struggle to make payroll from time to time. I get the real world challenges of building and convincing clients to do it right. My book is merely written with a desire to share a unique perspective I think I have been fortunate enough to gain.
I believe our profession actually has a great opportunity staring us in the face. I would compare where we are to life pre-Starbucks. I don’t know about you, but a cup of Folgers coffee in the morning isn’t my idea of waking up. It is weak, the beans are bitter and it isn’t satisfying. The people at Starbucks brought a passion and enlightenment of coffee that was eye opening. Different beans from different parts of the world, with rich flavors and variety. I think we’re convinced our customers won’t drink good coffee and thus we don’t even try to sell it. In fact, I think if we showed them the value of craft they would be receptive and open to paying more. Of course not everyone, but some…and those are the ones I want to work for. We hold a rich tradition of craft and if we would pursue it with new passion, we would find the customer will follow.
I know you have just read one chapter, but realize the point of the book is to encourage and enliven our profession so that we can build better and make more money, and yes earn more kudos.
I really enjoy your frankness and efforts to bring a dose of reality to this discussion. It’s interesting that you write “Americans are simply content with the quality (cost vs. value) of their home”. Would you be willing to give specific examples supporting your belief? I’m wondering if you’ve found this to be true based on your own experience, your family’s, friend’s, client’s, etc.? I ask this because I see it differently. On a broad scale I see a proliferation of home improvement shows produced for the general public. In fact, I can’t go to the doctors or the dentist without one of these DIY network shows be run nonstop in the lobby or exam rooms. Most folks seem attracted to these shows like moths to a light bulb. Why would they be popular if these viewers were so satisfied with their own living space? To the contrary, I believe most folks watch them because they are NOT satisfied. They’re actually looking for specific ways to improve the way they live– or at least to daydream about doing it.
However, I do agree with your belief that there is way too much romanticizing of the past when it comes to judging homes of today. It distorts our understanding of where we are today in terms of progress. In my opinion, homes are built faster and better (on average) then ever–and are getting better all the time. While all of them are not shining examples of architecture, they are relatively comfortable and relatively energy efficient. Sure, they could be better; and most won’t be around for more than 50 years. Then again, most of the homes we built 50 years aren’t around today. Probably most of the ones we built 100 years ago were unremarkable as well and also didn’t last more than 50 years either. And so it goes. My guess is that the romanticizing happens as a result of being able to actually study (face to face) the relatively few that have lasted for 100 years or more. However, this is a distorted view of history as these gems are still here by virtue of being built by the best, for the best. And I’m not just including opulent homes built by the industrial age elite. One of my favorite places to visit for architectural inspiration is the historic Pleasant Hill community built by the Shakers beginning in 1805. Their dwellings are astounding in many aspects of architecture, including the simple aesthetic. While these folks were not materialistic by nature, they were extremely talented, motivated, and successful farmers, builders and inventors. They had to be because they were working for what they considered the best client of all; God. Everything they endeavored to do was pursued with the utmost effort as all fruits of their labor were considered judged before the eyes of God. These efforts, similar to those that worked for the wealthy barons, were unique and resulted in lasting works we can still visit and enjoy today. It’s not easily adopted by the masses, nor can it be. We will always have a sliding scale of “architectural commodity”, if you will. There will always be a small percentage at the top which (by virtue of it’s contrasting nature) will define the larger middle. This is the manner in which the masses continue to live. It called mediocrity. We’ve lived with it as long as man’s been building shelter.
So, put more simply, I believe the folks who pine away for the average Joe to re-adopt the “forgotten” ways of the past are encouraging us, unwittingly, to compare apples to oranges.