It’s the last season in the quatrain story of the design process- thanks for coming along on the trip, (for perspective go back to “the process” post) we are all done theorizing and talking in circles! So get out of the boat- It is time to roll up sleeves and do some honest work. This involves what my father called “sweaty money”. Its time to kick up some dust, smell the paint, shuffle through sawdust- and the mud. This is my favorite part, (ok ok I know I already said it was the “idea” part) – but this is a different kind of experience- where all the IDEAS become real. As in concrete real. What’s REAL-ER than concrete?
During this phase of the work, you get to crawl around on scaffolding, climb up ladders- and work with talented skilled craftsmen. I believe there used to be many more of them than our mechanized, standardized and computerized world allows for today- but I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best ones around. I admire people who work skillfully with their hands, making beautiful things. I have spent many months with favorite stone masons whose three man crew has a goal of 80 square feet per day. Thats like 9 feet square. One particular historic renovation project with them lasted over a year and a half. Heck, they got married, had children- whole families happened while they worked on ONE project. I’m talking about men who bring an old-school LUNCHBOX to work most days. I like those guys and respect the job they do (though I dont plan on trading my job anytime soon). Great builders take immense pride and satisfaction in their work. Any architect or client who doesn’t appreciate this is doomed to a frustrating experience and will likely not fully realize their design goals as a result.
Because this is where the rubber meets the road, many details get worked out at this time. If there are any small problems inherent in the design or the drawings, this is when you will find out. Many times my reaction when a builder asks how to resolve a certain detail on a project is to ask “how do YOU think this should happen?“. Once the shock wears off, I usually go with his suggestion, adding an idea to preserve the overall desired intent of the design. This gets the best of both worlds, and is usually a better answer than either of us could come up with alone.
One of the most important parts of the construction process I enjoy immensely is the discovery process of seeing slight tweaks- really opportunities on the fly that can significantly impact the final product. It’s no different than a sculptor eyeing his work and becoming aware of parts that need to be revised or lessened perhaps even removed- an area that needs something- and making the move to bring the piece into balance and order. Moving a window only a half a foot in one direction may perfectly frame a tree, when viewed from a bedroom. Now if you decide the kitchen needed to be on the other side of the house, then you may have a bigger problem in your process that needs to be addressed.. Mostly these are tweaks. You can’t make these kinds of changes if you arent’t there to notice it. Won’t notice if you aren’t paying close attention. Once, on making the final site location, we sadly removed about 6 or 7 really fine large white oak trees once to make room for the house, but saved them from the fire by instead sending them off to the mill and the kiln. Months later we had them back, board by board they became the floor for the entire house.
One more story. There was an old architect I worked with years ago who was truly old school (like didn’t even know where the on button was on a computer). He told me a story about a draftsman who was struggling with a detail drawing, and wrote a note in one part of the drawing said WOOJ. His project architect checked the drawings and asked him what the cryptic word was. The draftsman said “well, I couldnt really draw this part, but I know we can figure it out during construction, so I just put wooj, it means Work Out On Job!”. I love that story, and have adopted the idea of wooj- to mean never giving up on making it better and finding opportunities. The japanese call it Kai-zen, or the art of continual improvement- but I’m not about to say kaizen to any of my dusty builder friends.