Why is it so hard to build a decent building?

What will it take to return scale and care to building?

In a recent Facebook post my friend and colleague Steve Mouzon, author of Original Green, posed an important question:

“Why is it that when there is an attempt to recover a lost tradition, that which is built is not the tradition but rather a cartoon of that tradition –have we lost the ability to see clearly?”

I think our habits of building are fractured and out of sync. We can’t seem to capture the rhythm of the mechanics of design and construction well enough to transcend a stilted mechanical approach. The people who built the traditional houses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had habits of building that were reasonably intact. We try our best to be fluent in a language that, if not dead is at least seriously wounded. While some struggle to produce drawings that communicate well, others struggle to read them well and then launch ahead sure that they’ve “got it”. We trust our brains when we probably have little reason to. Everyday tradeoffs in building present themselves with reliable frequency. We are not wired to be obsessive or hyper-vigilant when performing carpentry or ordering lumber. At some point, you believe that you have a handle on the task at hand. Even hearing someone explain that “We do this because…” can feel abstract and a somehow disconnected. Skipping over the surface of a tradition feels pretty profound, so you don’t know that you are supposed to be diving deep. We are thrilled at building something that seems darned good compared to today’s usual habits of building, so we can’t see a more sublime experience just a few steps away.

Imagine that you are a housewright in 1889. You spent the winter producing window sashes, doors, moldings in your barn with the collection of hand planes and the Asher Benjamin handbook you inherited from your dad. In the spring you lay up a stone basement and start framing a house. When it comes time to install those windows, doors and trim your grasp of to how the pieces go together makes so much more sense than someone setting windows and coping trim today. Whether in the design studio or the field, it is rare for us to get Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 Hours in on the full arc of the work, on the habits of building. So, yes, Steve we have lost the ability to see clearly.  These days we see as if through a glass darkly. We need the discipline and structure of craft and habit to recover our sight. Today the flow that emerges from that discipline and structure is not available to most. On a good day some talented people provide us with some well-intended choreography of a dance few of us have ever seen performed by someone with real mastery.

4 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to build a decent building?

  1. Kevin May 26, 2016 / 8:40 am

    I think you meant 1899?

    Are you going to take the small developer initiative a bit further and help us vertically integrate as our own construction manager and carpenter?

    • rjohnanderson May 26, 2016 / 9:37 am

      Thanks for the edit. I fixed the date. As for small developers taking on construction management, I have advocated for this from the beginning. I see two preferred methods for contracting. 1. Step up and manage all the trades directly. If you are intending to hang onto your portfolio of buildings for the long term, you should be pretty closely connected to the trades that build the buildings. This will help you as you seek their input on improving the buildings and the construction operation. Filtering communication through a general contractor does not help in this area. 2.Negotiate a fee and overhead percentage with a general contractor and run the job with an “open book” approach. I prefer method # 1, but I came up from the trades. Other folks may not be comfortable taking on the management of the trades directly. One way or the other it is important to have direct communication with the trades. If you start small enough you can a a crew of a few reliable tradespersons from the neighborhood. I think disciplining your appetite for larger and large projects with a sober assessment of where the trades are going to come from is pretty basic. We are seeing significant shortages in skilled construction trades in most markets these days. Keeping things small and incremental is a reasonable hedge against having you job drag out for months because you cannot find the trades you need , when you need them. Vertical integration without putting carpenters on your payroll can be done by assembling enough of a backlog of work that your independent trade contractors have plenty to do out ahead of them. You also need to streamline your construction financing so that you can reliably pay people when you commit to pay them.

  2. basenjibrian June 16, 2016 / 2:51 pm

    This is such an interesting discussion. You can really see this in modern attempts to do “classical” architecture, which almost universally seem to be awful.

    There is an architect in Oakland who does traditional designs that seem to be (much) better than average, but only that. Wish I could think of his name…….Arggggh

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