Monthly Archives: August 2014

Notre Dame cathedral

The New Guilded Age

All that is wrong with the conventional building industry becomes clearer when you see it through the bright lens of a better way. I’ve been thinking a lot about what is right and wrong as we say goodbye to our latest French Compagnon-in-training, Thomas Beauvillain, who has been with us this past year. We wrote a little story about Thomas and the Compagnons in an earlier newsletter, but it’s worth reviewing a few of the key pieces of the story here.

Thomas Beauvillain
Thomas Beauvillain

The Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of Duty) is a 900 year old guild of French artisans. Its roots go back to the golden age of building, an era during which many of the architectural treasures we so admire today were constructed, including grand manor halls, cathedrals, barns, houses, and public buildings, now 500 to 1000 years old. The Compagnon tradition of training deeply for knowledge, skills, discipline, and character development are the basis for the attitude and competency that were considered to be necessary requirements for master craftsmen challenged to create what has become many of western civilization’s architectural icons.For a prime example of such buildings, think of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which started construction 851 years ago. It displays the paragon of craftsmanship, engineering, sustainability, and design that doesn’t yet have any obvious contemporary peers, but has many from that amazing period.

Notre Dame cathedral
Notre Dame cathedral

Monumental buildings like the Notre Dame cathedral were made possible because the training for craftsmen who built them was rigorous. They understood that their intention to make great buildings would depend on people with great skills, and great skills, in turn, requires extensive knowledge combined with personal discipline and evolved character traits such as perseverance, patience, humility, and respect. After all, these were people who invested their lives in creating gifts to the future. Very often, the massive projects took 100+ years to build, and so many of the craftsmen did not even live to see their work completed.

While the history of Europe in the Middle Ages was an earlier version of Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” on steroids, with the very meaning of the word civilization in question, it was also the “Guilded Age” in the development of artisanry in many crafts and trades that set standards of art, precision, and durability that are hard to emulate centuries later. For instance, with all our advanced engineering knowledge and sophisticated tooling and technology, we modern day timberframers look at amazing work in such buildings as Notre Dame and Westminster Hall and realize we are still raw apprentices in comparison.

Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall

The Compagnon du Devoir program has continued through the centuries (they were called upon for the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty), and is still active today. If we think buildings matter to our civilization, you’d think such a training program would be obvious, sensible, and essential, yet nothing like it exists in North America.

Especially in residential building, unfortunately the opposite culture is dominant. In many of our trades, you don’t need to know anything at all, and the devolution is so complete that the intent to know is considered elitist, and caring is “kissing up.”  If you aren’t close to our construction industry, you may think I’m exaggerating, but this is real and true, and it comes from both the supply and demand side. The industry cuts costs by hiring unskilled labor, and those who are hired under those kinds of motivations have no incentive to become learners– a classic vicious cycle. One of the typical job site cynical comments is, “They pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work,” but the other more unspoken version is, “They pay us only for our bodies, so we leave our brains at home.”

Recognizing both the void and an opportunity, for the past 21 years, our company has tapped into the Compagnon culture and training. Through Boris Noel, an amazingly talented French carpenter who found his way to us in the early 1990’s, we discovered the remarkable “product” of the Compagnon training, and the deep benefit of being linked into an unbroken chain of knowledge and craft culture development. With thanks to Boris, we were subsequently accepted into their program of apprenticeship “tour” companies, and therefore have had the privilege of hosting young Compagnons during their training years, and have taken advantage of it whenever possible over the past couple of decades.

“Our” compagnons:

Boris Noel
Boris Noel
Remi Chadron
Remi Chadron
Julien Worms
Julien Worms
Emmanuel Jego
Emmanuel Jego
Bruno Sutter
Bruno Sutter
Group of visiting young compagnons
Group of visiting young compagnons

Under the immigration rules, we usually are able to have the apprentice Compagnons with us for 9 to 12 months. As our own master craftsmen are also extremely experienced, knowledgeable and committed, the exchange is definitely mutually beneficial. We have a pretty well-defined curriculum, continuous learning culture and a constantly improving process that is dynamic and open. Many of the compagnons have found their experience with us to be enlightening and fresh, especially because we’re not tied to their specific traditions and methods.

After all these years of influence, the elements of the Compagnon culture that are now stuck with us are extremely important and powerful. And perhaps a bit counterintuitive. Think of this: It takes 10-15 years to complete the Compagnon program, but there are no promises or expectations for long term financial gain. The wealth it offers is in knowledge, skills, and character. The jobs at the other end of the training might only be normal carpentry, nothing more.

The training starts in the teenage years and continues through several phases, includes a lot of personal sacrifice, much traveling, few privileges, and learning, learning, learning. The implied goal is high craft mastery annealed with humility. As a link in a sacred chain, there’s too much responsibility to allow room for personal arrogance. And so in the end, the sort of training that would in another profession earn a PhD, here only gives one the right to practice a trade with confidence and pride. That’s the form of wealth that comes with the deal.

At the end of their training, compagnons are required to build a "master work," which just might be the equivalent of a PhD thesis.
At the end of their training, compagnons are required to build a “master work,” which just might
be the equivalent of a PhD thesis.

Thomas started his training when he was 15. He’s now 22. But he’s mature and wise far beyond his age because he really and truly knows a lot since he’s already fully welded into the ancient chain of knowledge. What he knows he learned it from the guys who learned it from the guys who learned it, going back to those who learned it from others nearly 1000 years ago.

Before he left, this 22 year old compagnon gave a seminar to our team about the ancient French layout method, which allows very complex 3-dimensional geometry to be determined from an amazingly detailed process in 2-dimensional triangulation, projected intersecting coordinates, and geometric math.

Thomas with the seminar project he used to teach the French layout system
Thomas with the seminar project he used to teach the French layout system
An example of the layout system, with a class project compagnons learn in their apprenticeship training
An example of the layout system, a class project compagnons learn in their apprenticeship training.
How many American carpenters could do something like this?

Since we now have computers and CAD software, we technically don’t need to use this sort of technique anymore, but good craftsmen aren’t satisfied with being dependent on computer automation; therefore learning the systems that rely on basic geometry and math is important. But more to the point, for real craftspeople, gaining more craft knowledge is important in itself and needs no further justification. Therefore, Thomas’s seminar was well-attended even though in this case it was held after hours and off-the-clock.

Bensonwood team in Thomas's seminar. We've had similar classes with other compagnons, so some of our guys are already quite proficient.
Bensonwood team in Thomas’s seminar. We’ve had similar classes with other compagnons, so some of our guys are already quite proficient and also teach.

If there is any better evidence of the advanced craft culture we have here, I don’t know what it is. Think of how different this is from the usual construction site cynicism and low-brow language and behavior: instead, a bunch of guys, after work, of their own volition, learning from a young French carpenter how to do something they may never actually use in professional practice!

If we’re going to take our industry to a better place, we need a strong dose of something akin to the Compagnon ethos. The good news is that it’s not complicated. You just have to believe that building the places where we live and work matters deeply to who we are, and what we believe and intend as a society. If that is an acceptable premise, then those who practice in the building trades need the knowledge and humility of the ages, as well as the science and tools of our age, in order to be positioned to create the kind of sustainable habitats our world desperately needs.  Buildings are the most literal home of civilization. Surely, we can be committed to getting that part right, while we struggle with the rest. To build what is desperately needed 21st century and beyond, we need a new “Guilded Age” of building, and I’m happy to say there’s at least a little groundswell of that movement under way.