Whatever It Was, It’s Gone

August 26th, 2014

Sorry for being away so long. Like my tractor whisperer recently reminded me, sometimes you just have to think about things.

Since my last blog I have had some interesting discussions about where we go from here. We as tradespeople, architects, engineers, cultural heritage managers and I dare to say, Mr. & Mrs. John Q Public, are becoming increasingly aware of a confluence of lacks; lack of availability of qualified tradespeople and lack of availability of qualified educational programs to help alleviate the unfulfilled demand. This, for any of you who read my blog, is not new ground for me to set a plow into, but where and why to set that plow seems to me to be the overarching questions. I think we need to do a more thorough assessment of what these lacks are, how they came to be, and whether we have the ability to do anything about them.

The more carefully I look at the problem of the lack of qualified tradespeople, the more I realize my friend Ken Follett is correct. It is not that they don’t exist. It’s the fact that as a culture, we have stopped seeing them, by choice. Clearly there has to be some explanation for qualified tradespeople not even being recognized as living within our society, but I believe we have marginalized the trades so completely that it takes one to see one. We have effectively removed the value of trades so completely that asking someone to see the importance of reviving them is meaningless. We have chosen to remove the trades from our lexicon.

What would explain this apparent attempted extermination? I feel that a lot of the blame can be placed on the rate we move in today’s world. Experience has proven to me that doing good work in my trade requires moving relatively slowly compared to how fast things move in the world of high technology. How much appreciation can you have of the stone carver working on the building you just flew by at 70 miles an hour? You can appreciate, if you choose to, fine craftsmanship on the internet, but how often do we take the time to actually watch it being created? We are much more interested in the product than the process.

Chase appears to be enjoying using the 130-year-old cordless drill (boring machine) we taught him to use at the timber-frame workshop the Timber Framers Guild and Friends of Ohio Barns held at the Pasco Museum at the recent Agricultural Progress Days held outside of State College PA. He also learned to use a pull saw and a chisel and mallet. A smile powered volunteer!

Chase appears to be enjoying using the 130-year-old cordless drill (boring machine) we taught him to use at the timber-frame workshop the Timber Framers Guild and Friends of Ohio Barns held at the Pasco Museum at the recent Agricultural Progress Days held outside of State College PA. He also learned to use a pull saw and a chisel and mallet. A smile powered volunteer!

I also am becoming more and more aware of the insidious nature of how we have degraded the value of craftsmanship by no longer building for our children. Our self-indulgent focus on more faster has completely blurred our vision of the future we are doomed to leave to those who follow us, but where are our footsteps for them to follow? Who among the tradespeople today is the person our children can look up to for guidance and to respect for their knowledge and conviction to build what will make a future worth living in? Who is the Lebron James of the trades?

I’m sure some of you are wondering why Roy Underhill or Mike Rowe don’t fit that category. With all due respect, we have chosen to make them “personalities” instead of role models. In order to give them visibility we have chosen to be entertained by them, more than to celebrate them for what they represent. If the young people of today are to become the tradespeople of tomorrow, they need to be educated by today’s tradespeople, not TV personalities. But the educational system that has devolved into daycare at the public level, and a financial burden for our college graduates has no place for tradespeople as educators.

There are, of course, a few exceptions out there, like Belmont Technical Institute, American College of the Building Arts and Savannah Technical College to name a few, but the valiant folks who have dedicated countless years to making those programs survive will tell you that too much work goes into satisfying the bureaucracy of higher education and not enough into putting tools in the hands of students under the guidance of qualified tradespeople. Effectively we have removed tradespeople from the much needed role of instructors by not recognizing them as such in the first place. The problem of invisibility manifests itself again for the trades when seen from the eyes of higher education.

I have been asked to make suggestions as to where we go from here, and as the title of this blog infers, that is a daunting request. Cultural change is not easy to steer. But a phone call from my friend John C Moore, who heads the Construction Technology program at West Kentucky Community & Technical College, affirmed something I have been thinking is a possible important first step. We need to align industry and education. John nearly lost his program due to underwhelming enrollment and budget tightening. It took input directly to the college from local construction business owners to highlight the importance of educating tomorrow’s construction tradespeople to persuade the college to keep the program alive for now.

As long as higher education is a competitive system which enriches educational institutions at the expense of tomorrow’s workforce, who start off their carriers deeply in debt, the idea that a degree is the only way you can pay off your education will steer tomorrow’s graduates towards what they consider to be “high paying jobs;” the focus becomes the money first and the education second.

What would motivate a student to pursue an education in the trades under these circumstance? If our educational system were to be subsidized by the businesses who need skilled workers, it would be a potential step toward killing two birds with one stone. Imagine what would happen if the government offered some real tangible financial support as well!

I have heard some feedback that tradespeople aren’t cut out for, or even interested in, teaching tomorrow’s tradeswomen and men, but I can tell you from my years of experience teaching workshops and working shoulder to shoulder with other tradespeople in teaching environments, more often than not it’s hard to tell whether the teachers or the students are having more fun. Several stories on NPR recently have highlighted grass roots education programs started by men and women in the trades and aimed at elementary or earlier level students. The demand for those programs has been hard to fulfill and the people who have ventured into this self-made educational programming only have praise for the intense interest shown by their students.

I have also heard, as I am sure many of you have, that today’s students aren’t interested in learning much of anything else but modern technology. I’m here to repeat that is our own fault. If we don’t even recognize and respect the tradespeople in our society, how can we possibly instill interest in the trades in our children?

To me, this is the worst form of future blindness imaginable. I have said before, and will say again (you have been forewarned) we need to give our young people the tools and skills to build and conserve their own future. We sure aren’t doing it. If we want to see progress in education, we need to participate in it. It’s one thing to be irresponsible about what kind of world we are leaving behind us. It’s another entirely to allow a failed educational system to damage our children’s ability to do something about it.

Yes, a lot of technology has been good for our world, but much has been quite damaging. By limiting our view of what we think is important to teach our children, we cripple much of their creativity. Kids can be really creative with tools and materials long before they become adept at technology. We need to teach them how to do both.

 

 

 

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Are Tradespeople the Canary in the Cultural Coal Mine?

April 30th, 2014

Since my last blog I have had quite a few conversations with friends and acquaintances about the economics of trades education. As you might expect, it sent me on a bit of a wild goose chase trying to figure out just what the source of the diploma/debt marriage was. After all, isn’t getting an education supposed to be about learning skills which enable you to go out and make a living, not pay off a debt you incur before you start using what you have learned? NPR recently did a series on this subject, but as I listened to it I realized there was something missing. The topic of trades education was not included in the discussions.

Highly skilled and respected tradesperson Robert Yapp Jr. (top right with glasses) teaching a class at his grass roots “Window Restoration College”

Highly skilled and respected tradesperson Robert Yapp Jr. (top right with glasses) teaching a class at his grass roots “Window Restoration College”

Why? Because in the world we live in today, and in particular in the United States, trades education is as good as nonexistent. I didn’t say completely nonexistent. There are several higher education institutions out there valiantly trying to survive in the highly competitive world of higher education, several of which I work with as much as possible. But they themselves will tell you, in the big picture, they can barely even be seen by students graduating from our public school system. Nowhere in the mandate of today’s public schools is there a directive to help young people find their inner tradesperson. Why is that?

I myself have been guilty of lamenting the loss of shop class from the K-through-12 school system, but of late I have begun to question the validity of that lamentation. What was the purpose of shop class in the first place? It didn’t exist in the one-room schoolhouses that were the roots of today’s massive public school system. At school you learned “readin’, writin’ and rithmetic.” At home you learned how to plant a garden, sow a field, weed, milk a cow, change a tire, hammer a nail and everything else needed to eek out an existence. Whether you liked it or not, some of the most important lessons in life came from “doin chores.”

In Early America children were sent to school, if there was one, to learn the things their parents couldn’t teach them at home, didn’t have time to or didn’t feel qualified to. But when it came time to teach a young person to drive a team, swing an axe or push a hand plane; that was done under the guidance of a family member or friend of the family who had those skills. If you think about it, there was a very logical separation of the education of young minds with books and blackboards and the education of young hands and minds with hands-on experience.

A lot has changed since those early days, and the more it changes, the faster it changes. Industrialization was a key component in the changes that took place during and after the American Revolution. As industries grew, fathers, mothers and even children became laborers in the mills and factories that drove the growth of the capitalist economy. And as the roles of early Americans changed so did the role of the public education system. Sending your children off to school became an important option for parents who themselves were going off to work, and as the incomes of entire generations increased, the decision to purchase what you needed, rather than grow it or make it yourself, became part of daily life.

With that transition to buy instead of build came an insidious change in the education of our youth. Parents who used to be able to teach their children how to sew, grow or hoe were losing those very skills and becoming dependent on an education system to not only care for their children while they were at work, but to teach them virtually everything they needed to know. That was when the education train jumped the track. It was being asked to do something it was never designed to do to enable the parents of the children attending the schools to go off and work in the factories.

Don’t get me wrong. The Industrial Revolution didn’t eliminate the need for tradespeople. In its early stages it created a great demand for them. People who understood blacksmithing, building construction and use of hand tools where a valuable asset to the industrialists who were competing to get as much of the money this new economy was creating as they could get their hands on. But the steel we were forging, the buildings we were building and even the tools we were using to do it were changing to suit the needs of industry. And coal was driving the steam engine of that industrial world.

The problem, as it relates to trades education, was the opportunity to learn, standing side by side with a father or friend, how to true a board, forge a latch, sharpen a plane or fix a broken wagon wheel was slowly being lost. If young people were going to learn trade skills it would have to be at school, but schools had never been designed to do that in the first place. Schooling was about studying, memorizing and passing tests. You can’t teach trades that way. Learning a trade requires the experience of doing things wrong so you can learn to do them right. It is a slow and tedious process of teaching both the hand and mind to work together to accomplish something. It is experiential.

As schools began to try to pick up the pieces of the education puzzle, attempts were made to understand just what skills it was important to teach. But the world around them was now much more focused on the need for good factory workers. By the end of the 19th century public educational systems were including a form of trades education called “industrial arts.” Go figure. For a time industry and education were strange bedfellows. The tradesperson of that period was more of a Frankenstein than a master of a trade. Trades education had been co-opted to suit the needs of industry.

Is it any wonder that when America finally started to wake up to the need for preservation it was not an easy task to find tradespeople skilled in traditional building? The tradespeople who built the buildings we endeavor to preserve today had little opportunity to pass that knowledge along to their prodigy. Learning at the side of the master was no longer the norm, and the number of young people who realized the value of doing so had become fewer during the heyday of industrialization. It is little wonder that the group tasked with writing the Whitehill Report came to the conclusion that the traditional trades were dead.

Luckily the move to preserve more of our past has been bringing traditional tradespeople out of the stonework. The damage done by the whole “blue collar/white color” mentality is slowly being reversed. But can we fix the problem by putting shop classes back in public schools? I am here to say no. Today’s factory workers receive on-the-job training provided by their employers. It isn’t the place of the public schools to do it, and the fact is, the type of education provided by them isn’t even suited to teaching trades. Both learning trades and the people who are best suited to learn them require a completely different educational environment than the public schools can provide.

If we want trades education to be available at all age levels we need to build the institutions to make that happen at a grass roots level. People teaching people is in itself a revival of how trades were traditionally taught. If we can make that happen we can sidestep both the daunting task of rebuilding the public school system and the need to buy a diploma with money you haven’t even made yet. I know for a fact this is already happening in many local communities and many well respected tradespeople have joined in to ensure they are part of the revival. We used to know how to teach trades. If we are lucky, maybe it’s similar to riding a bicycle.

 

 

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So, Why Don’t We Build The Way We Used To?

March 28th, 2014

In my last blog we talked about how the evolving economic and class structures are changing not only who we are, but the very world we live in. Why? Why do we find ourselves at the mercy of money instead of money just being another tool in our arsenal? Why can’t we let money be a contributing factor to our ability to ply our trade, instead of a burden that all too often impedes our ability to reach our goals?

A view of Lincoln Cathedral, now over 100 years old and a wonderful part of England's Heritage.

A view of Lincoln Cathedral, now over 1,000 years old and a wonderful part of England’s Heritage.

These are big questions which might require big answers, but maybe not. If we break down the affect that money has on our individual trades, we can come up with a long list of “evils” pretty quickly…… People don’t understand the value of the work I do. People don’t realize that building better is actually less costly in the long run. People don’t have enough money to pay for my work. The banks won’t give anybody a loan these days…..and the list goes on and on.

If you look at all of these “good” reasons tradespeople have trouble making ends meet they all have one thing in common. They are all about money. I will tell you right now, the best tradespeople I know aren’t doing it because they thought it was a good way to get rich (laughter in the background). But there are lots of people out there who think money will make their lives better, and a few of them succeed at getting lots of it, only to realize that what they really need is lots more. Getting rich is not a trade, it’s an ambition which can easily turn into an uncontrollable obsession.

If there were no money, there would be no poor people. Poverty is defined as a level of income. If there were no money, would there be no tradespeople? I think not. The truth is money is not what built the world we live in and unfortunately, as I said before, it is rapidly getting in the way of preserving what we have built. What is less obvious, behind the curtain, is that it is also standing in the way of building the world we should be building. Today most of the “building” we see is about money. We are building for the wrong reason.

As a tradesperson I have the opportunity to work on buildings that were built long before I was born. Currently I’m involved in a project that centers around a house that was built over 350 years ago. How much of what we are building today will be around 350 years from now for someone like me to help preserve? Why not? Because what we are building today is about money not heritage. Now don’t get your skivvies in a bunch, because I know a lot of the people reading this blog are telling themselves that’s not why they build. That’s not why I build either. There lies the problem.

Today tradespeople are not vanishing, but we are an extreme minority. My friend Ken Follett often tells me that trades education is at best a double edged sword. If the tradespeople already in our society can’t find work, why make more of them so there is less work to go around? Because people need to learn why building things well is important, and the adults, for the most part, already know everything. How many people, who are not in the trades, that you know question why we are building a world full of disposable buildings? Not many. We need to grow more.

Sarah Susanka first suggested in her book, The Not So Big House, that one solution to the problem of McMansioning America was not to increase the building budget, but decrease the building. Her logic being if you spend the same amount to build something smaller, you can build it better. This is not such a bad concept, but in my mind, it still falls short of a more elegant solution. It still focuses on the money, not the value of the building, and that value should be based on its life expectancy.

Every time you turn around these days somebody is telling us we are running out of something. Oil. Trees. Water. What’s next on the list? The reality is that we are using more and more resources to create a smaller and smaller future. We can’t focus on what we are leaving for future generations when we are focused on a bunch of throw-away stuff which includes where we shop, work, eat and live. If we want a better world for ourselves and our children, we have to build it, and last time I looked you couldn’t actually build much of anything useful with dollar bills.

I know I just got done talking about the vanishing middle class and the affect it has on our built environment, but aren’t we feeding the monster that is eating the middle class? Every time we bite the bullet to get a job we feed the beast and rob ourselves. In the words of John Ruskin: ” It is unwise to pay too much, but it is worse to pay too little.” By allowing money to be the motivation for anything we do, we run the risk of seeing its value in dollars. If we want to solve the problem of the two-class system, we can’t do it with money. There’s no such thing as trickle down dignity.

I feel more strongly than ever that we have to work our way out of this lack of a future that’s worth heading toward, and part of doing that is in teaching trades and the value of something well built. Yes, we need to rebuild the school systems, but we also need to rebuild our society. If we can create a Main Street program that is about people instead of buildings, then the buildings that we have stand a much better chance of surviving, and the buildings we learn to build again will have something that the ones being built today for the most part don’t have; value. And if we can put value back into our buildings and the people who build them, we will have something of real value to give our children: HERITAGE.

 

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Paradoxes of the Preservation Paradigm

January 20th, 2014

How often do you find yourself wondering why taking care of what we have is a never-ending uphill battle? Every day? Less? More? For me the answer is “more often than I like thinking about.” My grandfather taught me the value of taking good care of the things you own, and I would find it hard to believe that a lot of other grandfathers didn’t do the same, and yet we find ourselves in a world where one of the most important jobs we have is often one we find ourselves unprepared to do. Why?

I’ve talked around this question a lot in previous blogs, and have even taken the time to point out some specific reasons for why I feel this problem exists, but I’m afraid I have to say that more and more I think the problem is with the preservation paradigm itself. I know I harp on the harm using the word preservation in place of conservation has done, but simply pointing out using the wrong word is making light of a much deeper and insidious current in the flow of time. If that was “the” problem, we would have figured out how to fix it by now.

Rather, I feel it’s a problem of class. I’m not saying it has class; I’m saying it is class. Anyone who pays attention to the news, or studies social economics, is aware of the vanishing middle class in America, and for that matter all over the world. We live in a time where wealth has become a weapon and it is being wielded by those who have it to serve their own purposes, rather than the greater good. It’s a problem that is having an enormous detrimental affect on our society, but I’m here to say it is having just as serious of an affect on our built environment.

A simplistic view of what I am talking about is realizing that preservation costs money. Granted, as Donovan Rypkema keeps telling us, there could and should be good business in preservation. When it can be accomplished, putting money into our historic neighborhoods increases property values and provides people with good local jobs that are next to impossible to outsource, but it takes money to get the ball rolling. Money that more and more people who find themselves slipping into poverty just don’t have.

Preservation is, or should be, local. Taking care of your home, and by definition your neighborhood in an urban environment, is the first step in preserving where you live as well as how you live. It isn’t just about taking care of the buildings but taking care of the people who make a group of buildings into a neighborhood. But with individual home ownership on a steady decline the process becomes broken at the very heart. Its human nature (if grandpa taught you well) to take care of the things you own, but what happens when everything is owned by someone else and you just get to use it if you have the money to pay the rent?

We have talked about the vanishing tradesperson in the past, and even discussed whether or not someone could tell a tradesperson if they saw one, but I think there’s more to that subject than meets the eye. If the middle class is vanishing, which class are the tradespeople becoming members of? I’m here to tell you that given the choice, I would rather not see myself as aspiring to the upper class. Luckily, I don’t think I need to hide in a closet when the wagon master drives by extolling “Bring out your rich. Bring out your rich.”

So the plot thickens. We now find ourselves becoming members of a society in which the very place that the tradesperson and master mechanics of the world reside is itself in need of preservation and whose job is it to ensure that happens? Me thinks the Koch Bros. have no dogs in that fight. Rather than seeing a world evolving where the value and status of the tradesperson is understood, we find the tradesperson struggling more than ever just to survive. A lot of the tradespeople I know, myself included, are having trouble remembering the days when we honestly had to tell people, “I should be able to help you out in a few months.” Instead, we have to decide if the land line is even worth keeping just for the memory of when that phone used to ring.

A lot of effort has gone into consciousness raising to make preservation a recognizable mandate within our culture. The “Main Street” program has been working tirelessly to revitalize our historic downtowns and the National Trust’s “This Place Matters” initiative strived to bring awareness of the value of our built environment to individuals and communities, but as usual these programs fall short of making much of a difference in raising the standard of living of the people who make up these communities and neighborhoods. That isn’t their mandate.

I feel that preservation was an important mandate of our culture, and cultures all over the world, through the 18th and well into the 19th century. We understood the value in taking care of what we had and knew how much better it was to keep something useful and working well, rather than having to pay to replace it. The preservation paradigm was a way of life. Building things that were meant to last, or had a known and intended life cycle because of the environment they were built in, or the nature of our pattern of living, just made sense and keeping the knowledge of how was everybody’s business. Today preservation has morphed into a business based on economics instead of common sense.

 

A house built in the Holy Cross Historic District of New Orleans after Katrina during the restoration efforts. None of the historic knowledge of how to build in New Orleans was taken into account. Houses like this, and the ones built by Brad Pitt's charity “Make It Right,” often replaced homes that were a century or more old and now are rotting away only a few years after they were built. Was the knowledge of how to build in that climate not preserved, or did no one understand how to use it?

A house built in the Holy Cross Historic District of New Orleans after Katrina during the restoration efforts. None of the historic knowledge of how to build in New Orleans was taken into account. Houses like this, and the ones built by Brad Pitt’s charity “Make It Right,” often replaced homes that were a century or more old and now are rotting away only a few years after they were built. Was the knowledge of how to build in that climate not preserved, or did no one understand how to use it?

In recent times we spend much more time replacing things than repairing things. Is it any wonder that people become motivated to earn enough money to buy something new rather than putting money into something old? I will always remember the answer I got when I was visiting Germany and had had an opportunity to visit some historic barns and barn-houses. My obvious question was “How old is your barn?” and more often than not the answer would come back “Oh, it’s not really that old, maybe a 100 years or so.” I knew many of those structures were much older than that, but the pride wasn’t in having taken care of something old, but in having something new.

I would like to think that we could either resurrect the preservation paradigm we once understood so well, or create a new one that belongs to everyone, but I have trouble believing that will happen. We see the strength and power of the poor being focused as always on surviving, and more people becoming members of the lower class every day. Preservation, more than ever, appears to most people to be something that is part of a different world than they inhabit. They live on one side of a wall that gets longer and taller everyday and preservation is something the people on the other side do as a way of justifying their place.

I have had a love of old buildings ever since I was a kid. When I had an opportunity to include taking care of old buildings as a part of how I made a living, I felt like one of the luckiest people I knew. I take great joy in fixing things and can honestly say I have saved many old structures from being lost for now. But when people ask me what I do for a living, I know pretty much that I will get a blank stare when I say “I’m in Historic Preservation.” I might as well say “I’m a marble farmer on Mars.” In my world, I have become known as “The Barn Guy.” The funny thing is, I’m the only one that realizes that that’s just one of the many paradoxes of the preservation paradigm.

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Can we see our Conservation Goals when we are Focused on the Distractions?

December 2nd, 2013

One part of my work, a very enjoyable part, is doing structural and condition assessments on old buildings. I talked about the time traveling aspects of this in a recent post, but another curious aspect of this work is how hard it is sometimes, seeing what is right in front of me is. I get caught up in looking at some curious joinery decision made by a builder many generations ago, or by some less than appropriate “repair” that the building has survived. But normally these things become inconsequential when I finally stand back and take in the picture as a whole.

Working with my friend Dan Troth trying to figure out how to reconstruct the historic roof on an early 19th-century barn. The roof was replaced in the 20th century when the barn footprint was expanded, leaving little evidence of the original framing.

Working with my friend Dan Troth trying to figure out how to reconstruct the historic roof on an early 19th-century barn. The roof was replaced in the 20th century when the barn footprint was expanded, leaving little evidence of the original framing.

I think this malady itself is actually part of a much larger picture, which all too often we fail to see. Our natural tendency is to focus our observations on the things we are familiar with, or we think we understand. Unfortunately our own predisposition to look at what’s between the blinders can lead us into situations where we actually misunderstand what we are observing because we think we understand a certain part of it. I don’t believe this is a small problem, limited to our personal views, but rather a larger problem which we fail to comprehend at all because its limits are larger than our field of perspective.

A simple example of what I am trying to articulate was within a story RoyUnderhill told when he was the keynote speaker at the 2005 International Preservation Trades Workshop at Belmont Technical Institute in St. Clairsville, OH. He had been hired by Williamsburg as their lead carpenter and was determined to portray a colonial craftsman as best he could muster. Determined to start by felling trees and converting them to timbers by hand hewing, he went to the historic tool archives at the museum and found an unhandled axe head which had been discovered during a dig in a privy pit.

He asked the village blacksmith if he could reproduce the axe head, which Roy then hafted and went out to fell his first tree with it. Try as he might, the axe failed to give him acceptable results and ended up being so hard to use he took it back to the blacksmith to see what was wrong. The blacksmith told him the reproduction was completely accurate and pointed out to Roy that he now probably understood why the axe had been thrown down the privy in the first place. He was so focused on portraying a traditional tradesperson, that he had not seen the importance in understanding what makes a good working axe. Being a good craftsman requires good tools. A lesson he undoubtedly had had before.

When my own focus on timber framing began, roughly 30 years ago, I found numerous distractions to revel in. The tools themselves where a joy to hold, use and own. Working the wood was something I was pretty familiar with, but manipulating the various timbers, understanding how their life in the forest would affect how they would behave in service, and working the joinery to demanding tolerances became as much an obsession as a passion. I was quite literally so immersed in the process of designing and building timber-frame homes that I had no sense whatsoever of how little I understood about the history, cultural diversity or essence of timber framing itself. My qualifications were rooted in the present, rather than in the past.

When my friend and Timber Framers Guild member Dan Troth suggested I should look into being on the list of timber-frame companies asked to bid on replacing the historic timber frame barn at MalabarFarmsState Park, I realized how important my association with the Traditional Timberframe Research and Advisory Group was. The years I had spent doing “modern” timber framing had given me the skills I needed to layout and cut the timbers, as well as knowing where to source them, but what I was missing was a good understanding of how that work was done 150-200 years ago. The fact the barn had burned, and was then bulldozed and burned again before the replacement work was put out to bid, meant I needed an understanding I did not have of historic building patterns to replace something that had truly vanished.

As my work has evolved, over the last 20 years, into having a focus on restoration, I find that one of the immediate challenges of establishing a good working relationship with a client is trying to get them, and myself, to try to look at the big picture, instead of focusing on the rotted post, or collapsing foundation, or leaking slate roof. Interestingly enough, the process of discovery that follows the realization that something is wrong often causes the building owner to see things that they have never really looked at before. The challenge is to differentiate between what is actually related to the problem and what isn’t.

More often than not, it’s something that has been that way for a long time and has recently come into focus as the owner actually started looking for “problems” that must be related, when in fact they are not. I think the difficulty we all seem to have, to one degree or another, of only seeing what we are focused on, is symptomatic of a cultural malady which we need to rid ourselves of before we can actually make strides in Historic Preservation. Unfortunately our North American perspective doesn’t offer us a viewpoint from a place where preservation or conservation is a part of our make-up. As a young country we did our best to remove ourselves from the cultural bondage of the places we came from in an attempt to build something new with its foundations in freedom rather than heritage. We were almost single minded in our wish to create, not to preserve, as there wasn’t anything we had built to preserve.

In modern day North America we are faced with the challenge of changing our viewpoint. Within the last century the need for preservation/conservation has begun to become a tangible reality. Rather than lose everything we built in our quest to build a new world, we are beginning to see the need to keep some of it as part of our world today and tomorrow; but what do we see when we look at that challenge?

Even as practitioners and technicians we often find ourselves focusing on what we understand, or think we understand. Rather than look at the cultural dynamics of preservation, we find ourselves looking at failing facades, or missing resources of skills and materials, and the bigger picture of how we change who we are so conservation is a part of how we think is overlooked, or worse, invisible.

When the Whitehill Report was submitted to the Trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation on April 15, 1968, it contained a significant focus on education in historic preservation. The implementation of this mandate was initially focused on graduate level academic programs and took decades to become part of hands-on trades education programs. It has yet to have any significant impact on K-12 public education. Why is that? I submit it’s because it isn’t visible to the public school programs across America. It has no value because it doesn’t even exist in the minds of the administrators and teachers in K-12, and for that matter, in the vast majority of higher education programs across the land.

If historic preservation is going to become part of the language we speak, we have to teach it to our young people. We need summer school programs and hands-on preservation camps for grade school and high school students. Until we can make historic preservation as important and reading, writing and arithmetic, we won’t be educating students to leave high school looking for a job or a degree in the field. By not making students aware of preservation at a young age we are as good as blinding them to its existence. Their focus will be elsewhere, unless they are lucky enough to learn about it from their parents or peers.

We need a good preservation crime show on television. There are plenty of preservation crimes committed out there. Why isn’t there a show about them? OK I’m kidding, but not a whole lot. Television is one of the biggest distractions out there. If public TV had real preservation shows, not shows about turning historic homes into eyesores in record time, I would watch them, and I’ll bet a lot of other people would too. Eventually we might even begin to talk about preservation as if it was a real part of our world. Eventually it could become a real part of our culture.

I don’t think we have much of a chance at make preservation popular if we don’t take it seriously. I don’t think a protest march would necessarily work all that well, but it would make the news. The truth is we have to make preservation a tangible part of the world we live in. If that is our goal we need to make it into something people can see and understand.

You and I might be able to sit down and enjoy a conversation over a beer about lime mortar, but Uncle Fred and Aunt Wilma would fall asleep. Our distraction with methods and materials has a place, but we need to make sure it doesn’t keep us from seeing the whole picture. Historic preservation is not about saving our built environment first. It is about changing our culture first and then our built environment has a real chance of being saved.

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Is “Preservation” Why Buildings Fall Down?

October 8th, 2013

Obviously the process of preservation by definition is intended to keep buildings from falling down, or more often from being torn down, but just how much damage have we really done by placing the ubiquitous umbrella of “preservation” over the very important part of our economy that involves building conservation? My gut feeling is that if you were to walk down the street in pretty much any city or town in the United States and ask people if they thought this or that historic building was worth saving, a much larger percentage would answer “yes” than if you asked them if the same building was worth preserving.

On the most basic level it’s a matter of linguistics. Pretty much everyone has a definition for the word “save” and, more likely than not, there’s a commonality in those definitions, but the word “preserve” has a less common place in language of our society. For many it brings to mind a canning jar full of pears, while others might be desiring a peach jam on a piece of toast. But for others it’s where old buildings go to die, which in my mind is a very unfortunate thing. Historic districts should be about the continuing usefulness of historic buildings, not about preserving them in a museum environment.

Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics continues to do an amazing job of spelling out the positive economic impact that historic preservation can have, but his audience has to be largely made up of people like you and me who already realize that. There’s no doubt that his message is reaching people who are on the preservation fence and I’m sure a few who never really thought about the concept prior to hearing Donovan speak, but how many people at your son or daughter’s soccer game are hearing the message. More importantly, how many would care?

I know a lot of you reading this have heard me beat the conservation drum for years, and without doubt few of you thought it would be the last time, but let me state clearly that I now see little to no value in trying to fix the mistake we have made in our use of the word “preservation.” It’s too late. Rather I feel we need to step back and take a fresh look at how well we understand the process. If we want to win the war we have named preservation we need a bigger army.

Rudy 46.1

Before and after shots of a repair to a windoor header from an 1837 barn being adaptively reused as a bar/restaurant and rental hall. Traditional wooden repairs are an important part of the timber frame carpenter's repertoire. Before and after shots of a repair to a windoor header from an 1837 barn being adaptively reused as a bar/restaurant and rental hall. Traditional wooden repairs are an important part of the timber frame carpenter’s repertoire.

Or maybe not. Are we indeed in some kind of battle to save our historic buildings? Well, yes. But isn’t that battle something we created? Doesn’t our economic value structure demand that we honor growth as an icon? It is how we interpret growth in our economy that allows us to justify destroying what has already been built so that we can replace it with something new that fits our economic model better. We seem to be very capable of constructing buildings that support the growth of our economy and thus meet the mandate of our economic model, but we aren’t so well versed in how to build a new economic model in which what we have already built supports the growth of our economy.

One very unfortunate side affect of this build/tear down/build matrix is the loss of trades, skills and knowledge of traditional and natural building materials. I’ve talked about this before, but recently I have begun to gain a greater awareness of the insidious nature of how this continues to degrade our culture. It started when President Obama was first elected. The economy was on the ropes and he asked people to use the government website his administration had created to suggest ideas on how to improve our economy and help people who had been hurt by the loss of jobs.

I wrote to President Obama’s administration repeatedly about how trades education through hands-on neighborhood restoration projects could both improve the living conditions and local economies in our cities and towns and provide out-of-work people with new skills which they could continue to use both to improve their own living conditions and to gain meaningful employment. I never received a single response of any kind.

Initially I thought there were probably so many suggestions that mine just got lost in the fracas, but as I continued to watch how our society responded to the ongoing economic distress, I began to realize that I was probably speaking in a language that President Obama’s administration could not understand. My ideas did not represent a way of producing growth in their economic model. Further, they didn’t mean anything to the soccer moms and dads who were trying to figure out where the next paycheck was coming from.

I have begun more and more to realize that it is really less about our loss of knowledge of how historic buildings work and why they have value, and more about our own divestiture of them in our culture. We have sold them to the developers in the name of growth, and in so doing we have divested the knowledge we had of traditional building and used the resources to buy college degrees in anything but.

As my wife Laura and I have redefined ourselves and our company, like so many others, I find myself back on the front lines. I’m in the shop restoring an old building instead of in the office juggling jobs and writing contracts. Not that I don’t do that anymore, it’s just not the full-time job it once was. For me, it’s a good thing.

I really enjoy using the tools and challenging myself to make strong invisible repairs in timbers that have been serving a useful purpose three or four times longer than I have been on this earth. But it also has reminded me of how few people I meet have the slightest idea what I do. By now I would have hoped they could see a trades person at work. They seem to prefer to see the magic and mystery the smoke and mirrors produce over my personal focus on keeping an ancient trade alive. They seem to feel the magic is easier to understand.

My personal feeling is that we shot ourselves in the foot when we decided to call conservation preservation. In its own way, I feel it divided our culture in a way that we pay for every day. Whether it’s seeing a building being lost because the owner understood its value in the money they received from the developer better than the value in its preservation, or in realizing the reason a building cannot be restored is because its steward had no awareness that there was anyone out their that could do the job right. Tradespeople are still struggling for visibility in our society and economy.

If preservation is what we intend, we need to turn it into a core value of our culture, not a flag we carry into a battle of our own making. We need to make preservation part of our national lexicon, rather than a misunderstood term which tends to cast long shadows in short conversations. Better yet, we need to learn how to speak preservation in soccer mom and dad language.

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Does Davis-Bacon Belong in Historic Preservation?

June 24th, 2013

On March 3, 1931, during the height of the Depression, the federal government, under the Herbert Hoover administration, passed the Davis-Bacon Act (DBA), which established the requirement for paying local prevailing wages on “public works” projects to laborers and mechanics. In retrospect, many people believe it was one of the most insidious of the Jim Crow laws due to the fact that it effectively eliminated African American, as well as many immigrant, workers from federally funded projects.

The Lodi Railroad Depot was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Davis-Bacon Act regulations have significantly reduced the value of a grant recently given to the 501C3 Lodi Railroad Museum, requiring the organization to do additional fundraising to accomplish the same amount of work.

The Lodi Railroad Depot was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Davis-Bacon Act regulations have significantly reduced the value of a grant recently given to the 501C3 Lodi Railroad Museum, requiring the organization to do additional fundraising to accomplish the same amount of work.

The key to how this process worked is the fact that “prevailing wages” were established as the equivalent, for the most part, of union wages in cities in which at least 30% (increased to 50% in 1982) of the laborers and mechanics were union members. In effect, in order to land a contract for a federally funded public works project, you had to be a union company or be able to pay the equivalent of union wages. Segregation was a key factor because at that time, unions would not accept African American members.

According to an article about litigation to repeal the DBA on the Institute for Justice’s website:

“The co-author of the Davis-Bacon Act, Rep. Robert Bacon, represented a congressional district in Long Island. Bacon’s opinions on issues like immigration demonstrate the extent to which his views were patently racist. For example, in 1927, the same year he introduced the Davis-Bacon Act, he submitted the following statement from 34 university professors concerning a new immigration law into the Congressional Record.”

We urge the extension of the quota system to all countries of North and South America from which we have substantial immigration and in which the population is not predominantly of the white race. . . . Only by this method can that large proportion of our population which is descended from the colonists . . . have their proper racial representation. . . . Congress wisely concluded that only by such a system of proportional representation . . . could the racial status quo be maintained.

“In 1927,” the article continued. “Bacon submitted H.R. 17069, ‘A Bill to Require Contractors and Subcontractors Engaged on Public Works of the United States to Comply with State Laws Relating to Hours of Labor and Wages of Employees on State Public Works.’ This action was a response to the building of a Veterans’ Bureau Hospital in Bacon’s district by a contractor from Alabama, who employed only black laborers.”

Clearly there was an effort, at the time, by politicians and unions to control the expenditure of federal monies in order to benefit shops that employed union laborers and mechanics. The social environment of the time (long before the passage of minimum wage laws and the Civil Rights Act) made these types of activities largely invisible to the general public, and as long as this law only applied to public works like highways, bridges or public parks, it had little impact on owners of existing building stock–or the companies they hired to maintain and improve their property.

Where things began to become a problem, in my opinion, is the point at which the DBA was amended to include all projects in which federal funds are involved. This means that projects that include collaboration between local or state governments, with federal programs that provide funding for locally or state owned property improvement, also fall under the DBA. Further, projects that include collaboration between local governments and individuals or local non-profits, such as block grants, also are subject to the constraints of the DBA.

I would bet that pretty much everyone reading this blog is aware that preservation, restoration, rehabilitation – conservation in general – of historic buildings is extremely labor intensive. When the DBA causes the cost of that labor to the property owner to increase from 25% to 50% (not an exaggeration), the negative impact on every historic preservation projects is often staggering regulated by DBA.

It doesn’t take someone like Donovan Rypkema, who knows more about the economics of preservation than anyone I have met, to tell you that increasing the cost of labor doesn’t directly translate into more funding being available to the property owner to cover the bills. The pressure to cut corners becomes palpable to any contractor who is forced to pay DBA wages, and, inevitably, the project, the building, suffers.

The more you research the Davis-Bacon Act, the more incredible it becomes that such a Depression-age dinosaur still exists. On April 27, 1979, the Comptroller General of the United States General Accounting Office sent a 128-page report to Congress entitled “The Davis-Bacon Act Should Be Repealed.”

The report states: “We are recommending that the Congress repeal the Davis-Bacon Act because (1) there have been significant changes in the economy since 1931 which we believe make continuation of the act unnecessary, (2) after nearly 50 years, the Department of Labor has yet to develop an effective program to issue and maintain accurate wage determinations, and it may be impractical to ever do so, and (3) the act is inflationary, and results in unnecessary construction and administrative costs of several hundred million dollars annually.”

In 1993, Sen. Hank Brown and Rep. Tom Delaney each submitted bills to suspend the DBA, and each languished on Capitol Hill. These bills and the 1979 report from the Comptroller General are just a few examples from a long list of proposed legislative actions, litigation and public pressure to have the DBA repealed, and several presidents have temporarily suspended the DBA, beginning as early as 1934. From Wikipedia:

• President Franklin D. Roosevelt suspended the Act in 1934 for three weeks to aid in the introduction of New Deal efforts.
• President Richard Nixon suspended the Act in 1971 for one month as an anti-inflationary measure.
• President George H. W. Bush initiated a suspension in Florida, Louisiana and Hawaii. This suspension was not lifted until March 1993 by President Bill Clinton. The cited reason for the suspension was the need to provide as many employment opportunities as possible in the recovery from Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki.
• President George W. Bush suspended the Act for one month in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Reportedly President George H.W. Bush’s DBA suspension, which only applied to three states, created as many as 11,000 jobs. One can only guess at how many jobs would be created if the DBA were to be eliminated altogether, and the reality is many of those jobs would be at entry or apprenticeship level, affording a significant number of people an opportunity to be educated in the trades. With the DBA in place, every contract that includes federal funding, by its very nature, affords no opportunity for unskilled or apprentice-level tradespeople to be employed on the project. In effect, it destroys the ability of rural and inner-city laborers and contractors to work on projects in their own communities.

Large public works projects are typically done by large general contracting firms, and projects that involve federal monies require three separate bids for any work contracted, which more often than not causes the job to be treated as one contract, which again ends up being bid on by the same large firms. These companies often do not have tradespeople on their payroll who have the skills to do appropriate work on historic buildings. For the most part, specialty tradespeople, who work in the various trades encompassed in the majority of historic preservation projects, are part of small companies with a handful of employees; many are one- or two-person father-and-son or husband-and-wife shops. The wage scale required under the DBA typically precludes them from working on projects that involve federally funded grants.

Even if they can manage to bankroll a prevailing wage project, the amount of paperwork required to meet the certified payroll reporting required under the DBA creates hours of administrative work that can easily turn 8- or 10-hour days into 12-or 14-hour days. It is estimated that government administration costs associated with enforcing the DBA on construction projects is over $100 million annually, and the cost of compliance with the DBA for the construction industry is closer to $200 million. Imagine what kind of work could be done to preserve our built heritage if that money could go directly into historic preservation work.

It is clear that repealing the Davis-Bacon Act is unlikely, given how little response there has been in the past to efforts to do just that, but modifications have been made to the law over its 82-year existence. If legislation could be put in place that stopped the DBA from being enforced on historic preservation projects, or at least on projects that involve private property in registered historic districts, the positive effect it would have on how we maintain and conserve our built heritage would be significant and wouldn’t require any changes in how the companies that do the work operate.

Rather, it would create a better environment for hands-on education of tomorrow’s tradespeople by allowing them to work on projects where the true value of their work can be compensated at real, rather than inflated, values.

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The Replacement Value of Traditional Building

May 15th, 2013

One thing that really gets under my skin is paying for insurance. I realize that some forms of insurance are critical to maintaining our society, auto insurance for example, but other forms of insurance have become a requirement for more insidious reasons. I have no intention of wading into the health insurance debate, but homeowners’ insurance is the kind I have a bone to pick with. Having just gone through the tedious process of refinancing our home, I was forced once again to deal with homeowners’ insurance because one of the requirements of the HARP loan program is to establish an escrow account that is used to pay for both insurance and property taxes.

That got me thinking about the costs involved to repair the damage done by some of our recent natural disasters and about what that means in the big picture of how we build. Hurricane Sandy clearly caused distress for a tremendous number of people on the East Coast and reportedly caused $62 billion of damage. Hurricane Katrina changed the lives (and took many) of the residents of much of the Gulf Coast and reportedly caused a record $81 billion in damage. The unfortunate truth is that these numbers represent the amount of damage paid for by insurance. The actual impact is unknown in both cases. We will never know the dollar value attributed to what was lost by people without insurance or damage that wasn’t covered by insurance.

After Katrina, I was asked to represent PTN, in an effort involving the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) and the World Monuments Fund (WMF), in appraising the damage done to the historic structures in and around New Orleans. The focus was less on the storm damage than on the damage that could happen following the storm. The effort was named Alternatives to Demolition. The concept was to assist in keeping historic buildings with storm damage from being bulldozed because they had been condemned during the ensuing assessment process. Inevitably, it was an effort that was easier for some to see the value in than others.

I was not prepared, in more ways than one, for what I would see in the path of Katrina’s destruction. The devastation was staggering, as was the lack of animal life, including human. The storm had rendered much of the Gulf Coast temporarily uninhabitable for both man and beast. It was difficult to grasp, but it created a perspective from which I was allowed to see, appreciate and question my understanding of our environment, both natural and built.

My mandate was to focus on the built environment, and I quickly realized I had to un-focus my attention on the storm damage and learn to relate to the myriad other factors that were a threat to the historic buildings I had come to assess. I was engulfed in the reality that buildings can’t take care of themselves and soon became acutely aware that entire neighborhoods were at risk because the people who lived there had been evacuated. Before people were allowed to return, the risk of doing so had to be assessed by government officials who were in way over their heads, even though the water had receded.

Part of the problem was that the homeowners could not influence the decision-making process because they weren’t able to be involved. For the most part, their buildings had to fend for themselves in an environment resembling the scrape-and-build mentality so prevalent in areas where gentrification, investment and development combine to cause old buildings to be viewed as detriments to progress. If no one had come to their defense, many historic buildings would have been demolished because their value could not be perceived by building inspectors and insurance adjusters.

What really began to come into focus for me was the fact that I was looking at historic buildings in the aftermath of a hurricane for the very first time, but the historic buildings around me were looking at the aftermath of another hurricane. Depending on their age, they may have weathered 10, 20 or more hurricanes. The same could not be said of the newly constructed buildings, which suffered significantly or were lost completely.

Before and after shots of Dorothy Phillips American Cottage on North Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Top photo: After Hurricane Katrina. Below: During restoration.

Katrina had come ashore in southwest Mississippi, where the storm surge in the historic town of Bay St. Louis was 24 ft. above sea level. Entire historic districts suffered very heavy damage, but as I walked along what was Beach Boulevard with Marty Hilton of the WMF and Lou Linden of the NTHP, several houses stood out in that they had suffered damage but appeared to be in good condition structurally. As we got closer, I realized I was looking at one home in particular where siding and part of the wall had been torn away to reveal timber framing with pegged joinery.

The owner’s son and daughter were there with some friends cleaning up debris and invited us to come in and see the historic American Cottage style home. Because the house was built on a ridge roughly 10 ft. above sea level and was also raised up on brick piers, the surge water hadn’t made it to the high plastered ceilings but had filled the house up with several feet of sea water before finding its way back out through doors and wall openings. Studying the hand-planed, tall single-board trim around the floors and the water mill-sawn framing, it was clear the structure had been built in the very early 19th century. Katrina was clearly not its first hurricane rodeo.

The family questioned us about what they should do, since they had been told by local contractors and their insurance adjuster that the house should be demolished. We explained to them that their house was a wonderful example of both a classic architectural style and a house that had been built to withstand the force of hurricanes and had done so for nearly two centuries. In effect, the way the house had been constructed was its own form of insurance. We explained that with some careful cleanup and repair, the home could easily be returned to its historic majesty. The bright smiles on their faces may have been the first ones since the storm had challenged their lives and property.

As we continued on our quest to save the historic homes along the Gulf that had survived Katrina from destruction by the human aftermath of the storm, the reality became clear that the best insurance they had was how they were built. The lime-based plaster walls with cypress lathe held up totally intact after an extended period submerged in flood water, compared to homes that had been re-muddled with modern drywall and were covered with wide bands of black mold. The quarter-sawn heart-pine floors were still pristine under a layer of mud, while the modern replacement floor systems were swollen and buckled beyond salvage. The reality that the older homes were built for disasters, decades prior to the introduction of homeowners; insurance in the 1950s, was becoming glaringly obvious.

How quickly we forget how and why we should build to withstand the forces of nature. In today’s world, images of neighborhoods demolished by natural disasters are commonplace, but how many people realize that the real reason we see higher and higher damage estimates has largely to do with how substandard so much of what we build today is when subjected to the powerful forces of nature? In truth, building codes were created for the most part to protect mortgage and insurance companies, but why is the bar set so low? As my builder friend John Abrams once said, “When someone says that everything they build meets code, what they are really saying is that if they built it any worse, it would be illegal.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should do away with homeowners’ insurance, but if the mortgage company is going to force us to pay for it, shouldn’t there be a sliding scale that provides traditionally built homes with lower premiums because they are built to survive the environment in which they are built? If it doesn’t really matter how well your home is built, I guess it makes sense to build it cheaply so you can afford the insurance that will replace it when Mother Nature throws another temper tantrum.

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A Time Traveler’s View of the Built Environment

March 13th, 2013

The Grailville Oratory, a very large adaptively reused timber-framed barn from the late 19th or early 20th century.

Several weeks ago I was contacted by an engineer, with whom I had worked longer ago than it’s polite to talk about. He needed some help with the structural assessment of a building. He had been asked to look at the Oratory at the Grailville Retreat and Program Center, a Catholic facility with 14 buildings on the outskirts of historic Loveland, OH. The director of the center asked him to look at some damage that had been reported by a young architect who had recently done condition assessments of several of the buildings on the campus.

The management staff of Grailville had an interest in investing some money into some of their buildings as part of a program upgrade in order to make the buildings more useful for an expanding program schedule. Wisely, they decided to have a professional assessment done of the buildings in question to determine if there were unrecognized condition issues that might affect their decisions as to how to invest in the improvements.

The architect, who was a member of the facility’s congregation, was presented with a sizable challenge when assessing the Oratory due to the fact that the structure was an adaptively reused 42×108-ft. cattle barn that had been rehabilitated in 1961 so that services could be held in the building. As with most architects, she had little formal education in understanding timber-framed structures but did a very comprehensive assessment as had been requested and in doing so reported to the director that she had found a number of structural problems with the building. That was the origination of the call to my acquaintance Tom, the structural engineer.

Damaged mortise-and-tenon joinery in the Oratory that occurred prior to the rehabilitation for adaptive reuse in 1961.

Tom and I had worked together on a timber-frame project involving the construction of what was to be called the “Earth Connection.” The facility was to be used for educational programs directed toward sustainable living in the early days of recycling and alternative energy, well before the marketing of “green” everything took place. The building was to be timber framed, using locally harvested timber, and the frame was cut and raised during a two-week-long hands-on workshop in which my wife Laura and I served as instructors.

Tom accepted the invitation to do a structural assessment of the damage reported by the architect and was a bit perplexed by the extent of damage that existed. Attempting to understand what he was looking at, he searched for possible sources for the damage and concluded it may have been caused by straight line winds, which last year had damaged several buildings and toppled a number of large trees close to the Oratory.

When asked by the Grailville director if the building was safe to use for Easter services, Tom decided to give me a call and ask me to assist in assessing the structural integrity of the building and potentially designing emergency stabilization that would make the building safe for use until repairs could be done.

Always glad to have a chance to meet with an old acquaintance, and to look at a historic structure to boot, I agreed and asked if it were possible to send me some photos of the building and the damage that had been reported. He talked to the director and soon there were 82 images for me to review before my site visit. Looking at the photos was invaluable. There was without question damage to the timber frame, but the real question was whether stabilization, or even repair, was necessary.

Arriving at the Oratory, we were greeted by the director, Becky, who was both happy to see us and concerned about what we might have to tell her. As we began to talk, several other people associated with Grailville arrived, as did Tom the engineer and Heather the young architect. I had brought along my usual “building doctor’s” toolbox and had included a 150-year-old piece of timber (a cut-off end with a tenon), which exhibited both “checking” and “shake,” as a way of doing a little show-and-tell before I started my walk-through and ladder climbing.

I explained how “seasoning” causes green timber to develop stresses over time, a term based on the fact that it takes seasons to dry, and how natural materials behave differently than man-made materials. I explained why timber faces show splits, which we call checks, that are the natural result of seasoning and how timbers with spiral grain, sweep and slope of grain distort as drying occurs, as well as how the timber frame itself acts like a giant restraint to counteract much of the distortion while absorbing the stresses. Most important, I explained that we had to think of the building as a time machine as we began to understand how natural and man-made forces had affected it over its lifespan.

Based on my experience, it was clear that we were standing in a frame that was built roughly a century ago, give or take a few decades. This meant we had 100 years, give or take, to attribute the existing conditions to. Immediately, we could assign two waypoints to that timeline that were of significance: the date it was constructed with a natural stone foundation and a freshly harvested pine timber frame (a date we can only guess at) and 1961, when adaptive reuse modifications took place based on drawings by Garber, Tweddell & Wheeler Architects.

The significance of these waypoints is that the building functioned differently prior to the adaptive reuse modifications than it does now, over 50 years after the rehabilitation took place. As the walk-through progressed, I confirmed what I had seen in the photographs. There were significant joinery failures, most of which could be attributed to defects in the timbers, distortion caused by deformation or accumulated shrinkage, but some were clearly due to some other conditions that most likely were either significant wind or snow loads.

However, what the engineer and architect had thought were recent failures caused by a weather event or some type of structural degradation were not so recent at all. In fact, if they would have been able to see the damage through time glasses, they would have understood that nearly all the damage they had discovered existed in 1961 when the building was converted, and the architects and general contractor had not included repairing them in their scope of work.

Furthermore, the dark patina of all of the exposed damage, in conjunction with the lack of any cracking or failure of the interior plaster surfaces abutting the damaged joints, clearly showed that the added building envelope had acted as a reinforcement cloak, which had preserved the unrepaired failures for half the life of the building.

As I completed my assessment, as I all too often find, the real danger to the building had been overlooked with so much focus being placed on the damaged joinery. I found several areas where stained plaster and stained timbers clearly showed the roofing system on the Oratory was in failure. The fact that the building had survived both nature and mankind for over 100 years of time traveling, Mother Nature, in her gloriously insidious way, was working slowing but surely to retrieve the trees that had been harvested a century ago. I was reminded of what my time-traveling friend Jim Askins taught me about building maintenance, which is the real process behind preservation. Said Jim, “There are three things that damage historic buildings: water, water and water.”

It’s best to remember that every time we see something that has happened to a part of our built environment, we need to include the dimension of time in our understanding of what we observe. Without time on our side, we often miss what the structure is telling us altogether.

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Can We Even Comprehend Craftsmanship Today?

January 7th, 2013

In my last blog we discussed whether or not today’s tradespeople were capable of the same level of craftsmanship their predecessors possessed, but I feel it is just as important for us to consider whether we have the ability to recognize, and truly appreciate, quality craftsmanship when we see it. I have talked before about how different today’s world is and how that can impact the work of the tradesperson. The reality is it affects the tradesperson’s patrons just as much, if not more.

A masonry sample extraction that most people would walk right past without thinking about the skill and knowledge of materials that make it work. Photo: courtesy of Ken Follett

We live in a world where it is difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the hand of man in the modern things that surround us. Oftentimes, it seems that there is an automatic assumption that if something was made by hand, it must be old, an assumption that is anything but odd considering the fact that things that are old are the very things we associate with craftsmanship.

How we got here is not difficult to understand. The system of capitalism we employ to sustain our economy, and many of the economies around the world, demands that products be competitively priced to be marketable. This in turn often means that the best way to make something is most likely not by hand. The catch is in the term “best,” because marketability becomes the standard by which value is assessed.

When I was young, I remember my German grandfather owning a Cadillac. He didn’t purchase it as a status symbol. He drove it because he felt it had the most value for the money he had used to purchase it. It was the best investment. Today, value is rarely based on quality.

Instead we use various methods to associate value with an object, depending on what that object is and how we intend to use it. If it is food, we generally consider it a good value if it has a low price, because, for the most part, a cabbage is a cabbage. If it is clothing, cost is still a major factor, but now we have to add appearance to the equation. How this item will look on me or how it will make me look becomes part of the perceived value. Few people seem concerned about how the cabbage they eat will make them look.

When choosing a car, both cost and appearance play a part in the value we perceive it to have, but now we add other factors like fuel economy, performance, features and options, among others. And when we decide to invest in a home, all of the previously mentioned value items come into play at some level, but now we add potential resale value, neighborhood, school systems, access to mass transit and a myriad of essentials into deciding if the home is a good value.

At this point, I’m sure some of you are saying, “So what?” If you go back and review what we just discussed the one glaring omission is craftsmanship. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying no one pays attention to how well things are made or that some of us never even care, although that is clearly plausible. What I am saying is that how we value nearly everything that is produced in the world we live in is, for the most part, not based on our ability to discern the craftsmanship it embodies.

Why have we evolved into this value structure? I can’t say I can answer that question, with any degree of confidence. But I can ask it. I have been in many discussions, some more heated than others, about why so few people value the work we do, and in far too many of those interactions, I have come to believe that it’s generally accepted that very few people even care about craftsmanship anymore. I think the real truth is they may not even know how.

If I am right, how we market the concept of conservation can’t be objective. We need to see beyond the things we are trying to keep and learn to see where they really came from. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards of Building Conservation (my name, not the actual one) are ever changing, as they should be, but they have one basic flaw; they are object oriented. In reality, they are the same as the educational guidelines used to operate the K-12 public school system; they are based on results, not process.

As many people have heard me state in the past, what we need is cultural change. I know that is not an easy row to hoe, but without looking at the value structure we have inherited and realizing how it is blinding us to what the real problems are in conserving our built environment, we only shadow box with our own images. Until we really begin the hard work of putting the tradesperson back into the perception of craftsmanship, we are kidding ourselves that treading water will work when the flow of the mill pond of society is simply driving the mill of manufactured values.

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