Builder Literacy

Working in Colorado tract home developments in my early years in homebuilding, it appeared the knowledge and skills to accomplish the tasks were coarse and optional. Cowboy brawn prevailed. Good framing carpenters wielded 32 ounce hammers and could drive a 16d nail in two blows. They’d run their circular saws without blade guards and sling them like machetes, dispensing with sawhorses, holding the “stick” with one hand and making the cut with the other. Cut lines and layout marks were approximate and indicated with fat pencil leads. Layout was +- 1/4 in. and the stuff we built easily lost another 1/4 in. It was all “closeenough,” or ” you can’t see it from my house.” We’d use 3,4,5 triangulation on decks, but walls would just be squared up with the sheathing. We mostly used trusses for roof framing, but when actual rafters needed to be cut, nobody on the site could do it. A friend of the boss would show up and make a template for our crew. All other roof work was figured out with strings and levels. From that distorted perspective, I had a low impression of the homebuilding trades. Given the pace and the standards, I took it to be a place where knowledge and safety considerations were a professional liability. Lots of fingers were missing.

Later, on the East Coast, I discovered there were still some craftsmen homebuilders, and that there was indeed such a thing as “builder literacy.” Meeting real craft builders solved the mystery for me. I grewup in an excellent 1895 home my dad saved from demolition by having it moved a mile up the street. I knew the guys I had previously worked withweren’t capable of the quality and precision I had experienced in that old home. I spent lots of time in the company of good construction and Ioften wondered what the guys were like who did the work. Who figured out how to frame up that complex roof? What tools were used to carve that mantle? Who turned those balusters, each one a little different? Would I get along with men like that? Would I want to be like them?

I still wasn’t sure about that yet, but I was very challenged, which wasenough at the time. For those guys, builder literacy had much to do with tools and technique. It turned out the framing square is a tool capable of providing answers to numerous complex geometric problems, from compound roof framing to spiral and elliptical stairs. How would you layout and cut a hip rafter for an octagon? The answer is on the framing square. They cared about keeping tools clean and sharp. They hadstones for chisels and plane blades, and special files for the handsaws. Their toolboxes were often examples of their best work.

Certain tasks were exemplars of skills. Stair construction was such a task, as was building up door jambs and sills from raw stock, setting hinges, hanging the door, and installing hardware. There were lots of hand tools required for these tasks. Proficiency and efficiency requiredan efficient process and a facile ability with basic tools. It was alsoexpected that good builders understood how to keep water away from the structure by using various overlapping wood strategies, metal flashing, and tar paper. Wood was very often used for the framing, siding, trim, flashing, and roof shingles. That was the case in the home I grew up in.I replaced the roof around 1990. The original wood shingle roof had lasted 95 years. Most of the original wood shingle siding is still on the house today.

How many carpenters and builders today have the knowledge and skills that were standard expectations of the trades before 1950? Who still knows how to use the framing square? How many carpenters can still hang adoor from raw stock and door slab? The answer is pretty obvious: very few tradespeople know about those those skills and that knowledge because they don’t need it and there’s no training system to provide them with the historic skills of their trade. Therefore people just learn what they know from the people on the building sites from people who learned what they know from people on the building sites. With less and less tradespeople fortunate enough to come into contact with people who have good information and good skills, the generation-to-generation chain of trades knowledge has more broken links than connected ones. Theconnection to the past is nearly gone.

Since the fuel crises of the 1970’s, there has been a scattered but deliberate development of the building knowledge and skills we will needfor the future of homebuilding. It got started in the early 1970’s and gathered momentum during the second energy crises and into the early 1980’s. Builders lost their focus again when the federal tax breaks and subsidies went away and fuel became cheap again in the mid-1980’s. By the 1990’s and into the 2000’s, the building community had mostly becomestupid, with no knowledge of the past or the future. The growth in housing starts far outpaced the ability of skilled workers to keep up with the production, which meant that unskilled workers had to be pressed into service and the builders themselves often weren’t builders at all, just project managers.

This, at the same time that consumers wanted their homes to be big, and gaudy with amenities.

With consumers willing to buy junk, the building community was more thanwilling to deliver it. What therefore happened for many years is now our shame and also the source of the current national financial debacle.It is one thing to have paid too much for a bar of gold; quite another to have not only overpaid, but to find out that that what you own is fool’s gold, all glitter with little substance.

So here we are. This is the worst slump in housing starts since WWII. Fuel costs are high again. Those with the need, means, and courage to build in these very challenging times are demanding value and high performance. If they wanted less, there’s much of that available for less money and hassle. Builders who are going to survive in these times need to perform at a very high level on every basis. Costs are expected to go down, quality has to go up. And quality not only means traditionalcraftsmanship, it also means high energy performance. In other words, builders now need many of the values, skills and knowledge of the past, along with all the building science progress of the present. Precision and craft in fit and finish still matter, but so does knowledge about moisture management, air quality, pressure balancing and all sorts of issues the master builders didn’t have to consider in earlier times.

Builder literacy is now being redefined. All of the sudden, consumers get it. They want the home of the future and they want it now. It has tobe affordable, super energy efficient, and still contain certain expected conveniences and amenities. The bad thing about the building recession is that so many people are out of work. The good thing is thatthe number of homes needing to be built is much more proportionate withthe available knowledge and skills. Those who are still in the trades are hitting on all cylinders, learning what they don’t know quickly and competing in an arena in which the bar is significantly higher.

In the midst of this, our company is in a good place. We’ve been very invested, all these years, in traditional building skills through timberframing. Its standards and demands were established many hundreds of years ago. But our company was also formed in the energy crisis yearsof the 70’s and we have been committed to energy efficiency and the development of better building systems for the past 35+ years. To keep up with these past and future challenges, we’ve been humbled on both sides. We still chase the temple and cathedral builders of 500 years agofor timberframe quality, and we are well aware that high performance inbuilding construction is not a destination, but a path.

We know what we know and we know what we can do better. That’s why we have always seen the need for both on-the-job training and classroom-oriented education. Moreover, we feel that builder training and education needs to be mandatory. Remember, the beginning of all literacy is self-awareness and humility. In his defining work, Walden,Thoreau quotes Confucius as saying:

“To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Learning only that is the very first requirement in Builder Literacy 101.

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