Ishikawa and the Compagnons

Good buildings can’t be made without skills and knowledge. But where does one acquire those skills? And where does the knowledge come from? One of the reasons I like the “Old Audels” is that its four volumes give a wide spectrum of basic building education in a manner that is readable and easy to understand, but more importantly they reveal how much more one would need to know to master the craft of building. Too many in the building trades these days are afflicted with what Pythagoras called “compound ignorance,” or ignorance of ignorance. The reason for this is simple. There’s little in the way of training requirements for almost all of the trades; there are precious few active master builders around to teach; and so few places where one can learn anything about building trades in an organized way. The void is just too big. People involved with building in America often assume they know what they’re doing when they don’t. With a serious lack of mentors, teachers and schools for at least the past 50 years, American builders are often lost in their own fog.

The situation is very unfortunate for our floundering industry. Houses are more complicated than ever. With every hurricane, earthquake and tornado, we learn something new about how to make buildings perform better structurally. In addition, the need to make our built environment more energy efficient has raised that particular ante many-fold in just the last decade. The craft of building right now involves a lot of science. Making good buildings now more than ever requires builders to be capable, determined learners, not just good with their hands. In opposition to compound ignorance, the main thing every builder needs to know is that there’s more to know, and the present accepted standard isn’t nearly good enough.

Bridging the divide between our deficient building industry culture and the one we wish would be more dominant is a challenge. In the current context, we can’t reasonably expect our new employees to come to us already educated and trained, making our training obligations pretty substantial in the first few years. While we strive to fill in the all learning requirements for our associates, it’s often hard to find the time and maintain the budgets for the education we know to be critical. Therefore, we sometimes rely on our associates to “learn on the fly” while working with the “job captains,”  team leaders and their co-workers.

Without schools and without industry requirements, we have to depend on our own resources for education and training. We’ve developed a good curriculum, and in our midst we have good teachers for most of the requirements, but we’ve come to realize that the most important ingredient is our associates’ innate desire to learn, and to continue developing their skills. If they don’t want it, we can’t cram it. And if they do…well, it can be a really incredible, unstoppable force.

When I was young, the thing that excited me was being in the presence of master builders whose accomplishments and skills was only matched by their humility and respect for the tradition of which they were a part. You perhaps have never thought of carpentry as the “noble profession,” but when I heard that phrase from a practicing carpenter in his late 60’s, it didn’t sound like hyperbole because of his demeanor, and his explanation about how much buildings matter in the lives of people, and therefore how important it is that we build really well. That was Oliver. He was one of those who inspired me to want to be a carpenter and to learn how to build well. I needed his example for a standard, for a goal.

Since then, I’ve wanted people in our company to have the same opportunity to be inspired and pulled toward a higher standard by example. We spent our early years trying to accomplish that on our own, but while we had the passion and desire, there were some missing links in our craft lineage we were striving to overcome, and the dominant homebuilding culture was going in the other direction. We were swimming hard, but against the tide.

In 1984, we fell into the opportunity to have a Japanese temple builder, Masahiko Ishikawa, work with us for a year. He was at the end of a 10 year apprenticeship and wanted to spend a little time in a different place before going back to officially begin his career. Ishikawa was a 28 year old Oliver from a different place in the world, but from the same disciplined, reverential building tradition. He learned from people, who learned from people, who learned from people…going back 2000 years. When the thread of knowledge is that long and deep, it brings with it grace and confidence.

Ishikawa’s training began when he was a teenager. The path he took through the years of apprenticeship was a rigorous combination of classroom, workshop and field work. They emphasized the mental and physical discipline of the building crafts, but also humility and respect. It sounded like a combination of training to be a Marine and a Monk, while pursuing a PhD in a very specialized form of construction. There was little he didn’t know or couldn’t do if it involved wood, tools and building.

Masahiko Ishikawa

It was transformational to work with Ishikawa that year. We learned an immense amount, became a little bit Japanese, but perhaps most importantly, we had a living example to show us where the bar should be set. It was the starkest of contrasts with the non-caring, cynical building environment we often saw on American job sites. We all knew where we wanted to be on that spectrum. It was an experience and influence that deeply affected and directed us at an important time.

In the early 1990’s, I developed a good connection to the Compagnons du Devoir of France. Their training and building tradition is very similar to the one that Ishikawa was a part of in Japan in nearly all respects. Jon Senior, who lives in France commented on my last blog and pointed us to a web site about the Compagnons. I wrote back to him excitedly because for the last 20 years, we’ve had a regular flow of Compagnons working with our company as a part of their formal training.

The first Compagnon to join us for a period was Boris Noel. At the time, he had finished his decade of training and had accomplished his Masterwork, making him a true “Master builder” as formally defined in their training program. He did for us in the 90’s what Ishikawa had done before: he was an example of the education and skill level we wanted to be our own standard. He reminded us about the “noble profession” in his attitude, work ethic, and skills.

Boris Noel

As an interesting side note, Boris now works for Jean-Louis Velentin, whose story is highlighted on the Compagnon web site. Since Boris’ time with us, he has been our connection to other Compagnons who have joined us for periods and helped to make us a little bit French.

It’s hard to the fathom the difference between a building culture that requires no training with those from Japan and France that require 7 to 12 years of education and apprenticeship.  Having worked with these people and having used their standards to help develop ours, we know why it matters in every way.

Oh yes, we’re also a little bit German and Swiss. More about that later.

Emmanuel Jego
Julien Worms


Remi Chardon


Bruno Sutter

3 thoughts on “Ishikawa and the Compagnons

  1. Tedd, a good message and we lose much when we lose respect and interest in our past in many ways. While I agree with your message wholeheartedly I think its important to point out that the Timber Framer’s Guild has for over 25 years now been promoting and providing education and apprenticechip opportunities here in North America.

    Also your point is well taken that our society has lost the traditional relationship of apprenticeship to masters in many skills. I would like to add that with research you can find a great many very skilled carpenters and tradesmen whose work is held in high regard. However they have had to develop their mastery through their own research and discovery. Clearly the transition of apprentice to master is the missing thread in this country. Unfortunately it is not the norm and as a result of “compound ignorance” (love that, thank you!) both the contractors themselves and their clients fail to realize that there are better options.

    Thanks for this blog, I look forward to each new entry, and am grateful for your leadership in our industry.


  2. There’s no doubt the TFGuild has set a good standard for what an industry association should promote with its members. The apprenticeship program is terrific. In fact, we just had a group of apprentices here this morning from Heartwood. Wouldn’t it be great if the NAHB had the same priorities! It’s too bad the Guild’s focus is so narrowly on the timberframe, rather than whole house issues. We need to work on that!
    Thanks for your encouragement and support.

  3. I am very impressed by this philosophical approach of humility and commitment to learning, also love of craft and a recognition of the (hopefully) positive impacts of our labors.

    I am quite certain that production building is responsible in large measure for the degradation of expectations of all concerned.

    We desperately need master craftsmen/women if we are to design and build climate neutral (which is to say aggressively energy efficient buildings which do not have a carbon footprint. As a Passivhaus designer I am absolutely dependent on the skills and knowledge of master builders. Without them, my work is just a fantasy.

    Thank you so much for your commitment to mindfulness of our collective impacts as a collaborative industry.

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