All God's Dangers: the life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten

All God’s Dangers: the life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten

Wendell Berry, in his book of essays What Are People For? (North Point Press, 1990) has a short piece titled A Remarkable Man, which is a review of All God’s Dangers.  With no reason to believe that I can write a better review, or a better essay, I will say that Nate Shaw is the most authentic voice of the black experience in the American South that I have ever encountered.

Nate Shaw’s illiteracy, as presented through Rosengarten’s careful transcription allows us to experience Nate Shaw directly.  Here is a personal narrative which has never been influenced by The Book of Job, or Odysseus struggles to return to Ithaca; nor by Maya Angelou, James Baldwin or any other black Southern writer.  Shaw’s wisdom comes from within; in Berry’s words “Shaw burdens us with his character…Here is a superior man who never went to school!”

I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men years ago; there’s a part where James Agee apologizes for the burden that he and Walker Evans placed on their hosts; he mentions the existence of a few black families nearby that they didn’t visit, out of concern that the requirements of simple hospitality would have placed excessive strain on already meager resources.  I want to believe that Sam Mockbee understood Evans’ sentiments, and for that matter, that he might have known Nate Shaw.

Frankly, I can’t see that sort of compassion in the Rural Studio, at least it isn’t apparent from their press kit.  What I’m seeing in the $20k house is architects being architects,  listening to architects to reinforce their ideas, looking to architects for guidance, and ultimately answering to architects.  I have asked, by e-mail, the same questions to the current Thesis Studio students, to Rural Studio director Andrew Frear, and to the head of Auburn’s architecture school.  And I have received nothing in return.

Andrew, let’s do something remarkable.  How about communicating with someone who isn’t an architect for starters?

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Lost Art, Found Artifact


The 28th Annual Groundhog Day Tool Meet was yesterday, sponsored by the Southwest Tool Collectors Association.  A couple of dozen dealers present.  Looking over the hundred or so attendees, Evan was one of a very few not likely to qualify for the senior citizen discount.  Mark had a similar observation about a major tool show he had attended recently in Kansas City.  Young people just aren’t there to buy tools, old or new.

Some years ago, tool collecting was considered a safe investment, a relatively harmless hobby of acquisition and accumulation, filling in the gaps, trading up for better condition.  The apocryphal notion that tools were useful, or how many hands had worked with them was quickly overwhelmed by market value.  What really mattered was getting a mint condition Stanley #1, in the original box.  Never mind that a #1 was scaled to fit a five-year-old’s paws, it was going on a shelf anyway.


These three pieces of steel cost me $75 total.  There’s a bit of lathe work to be done, the 2″ chisel really should have a London pattern octagonal handle, and while I’m working boxwood, may as well take care of the others.  The French pattern drawknife is great on the shaving horse, and that scribing gouge has a very slight curve along its length.  I bargained the boring machine down to $100 even, found a couple of Eric Sloane books to round out my set…


…and this is the entire haul, mostly.  I let Evan have a 9″ combo square and a #9 ½ block plane.  The little jeweler’s hammer is Alice’s.  For Valentine’s Day…


opportunity cost: lack of access to education, tools, health care…
poverty of means: inability or unwillingness to see beyond one’s own experience…
skills set: the sum total of tools, technique, knowledge and experience acquired by an individual.

There are some things that cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.       Ernest Hemingway

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J L Hammond, a working history

J L Hammond and Barbara Hammond are two of the greatest historians you’ve probably never heard of.  In the early years of the twentieth century, they were commissioned by the British Labor Research Department to investigate the social and economic impacts of enclosure, displacement, and attempts to organize labor (combinations), up to the Reform Bill of 1832

Practically, their work discusses the effects of the Enclosure Acts, the systematic disruption of  English village life by taking of common land by the aristocracy.  Enabled in large part by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, enclosure became an instrument of massive land theft by the titled classes, legitimized by Parliament.  Through the penal laws and the practice of transportation, plantations in the American colonies were provided with cheap labor.

The Concentration of Power, the controversial first chapter of The Village Labourer, was only printed in the first edition of the book.

“…differs from previous editions…the original Chapter One has been omitted:  this chapter described the concentration of power in the hands of a small class…”

The middle chapter of The Town Labourer, The Mind of the Rich delves into the self serving impulses and rationalizations of the wealthy.

[Particularly worth reading for Hammond’s take on Adam Smith…probably the most misinterpreted economist in history (invisible hand and other Friedmanesque nonsense).]

The Conclusion to The Skilled Labourer addresses the ideological conflict between the capitalist elites and the working classes.

In their terror of the French Revolution they treated the sovereign hope that has inspired its best minds throughout the long pilgrimage of the race as an overwhelming illusion:  in their confidence in the unchecked rule of capital they made law, order, and justice the sentinels of a new and more terrible inequality between man and man.  The life of a society in which violence so deliberate as this is done to the instincts and passions of mankind turns inevitably into civil war.

We have been following Daisy’s education on Downton Abbey, the gradual progress of a Labor government in the years after WWI, and I have to wonder, has Daisy been reading the Hammonds?

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$20k house redux

I don’t believe it’s fair to criticize unless you can offer a better idea.  If these four guys can actually build a complete house in three weeks, they are carpenters, not mere laborers. This crew is going to spend the next fifty years building these houses, they deserve a better bargain.  Carpentry is skilled labor, and should be treated as such.  $11.57/hr. is not a reasonable wage for a carpenter, even in rural Alabama.

$11.57/hr. may be more than minimum wage, but $22,000/yr. won’t feed and house a family, provide health and dental care, and set aside a nest egg for retirement.  It most certainly isn’t going to send the kids to college…

Premise 1—–16 houses per year @ $20,000 per house=$320,000.

per house: $12,000 materials, $8000 labor, 480 man-hours.  wages: 1@ $31.77/hr.  3@11.57/hr.  typical employer/employee relationship.  contractor receives almost half the compensation package, or almost triple the wage of the workers.  in turn, roughly a third of the contractor’s gross will be paid out for insurance, accountant, equipment, etc.  leaving him with @$20/hr. in actual wages.

Premise 2—–12 houses per year @ $25,000 per house= $300,000.

per house: $12,000 materials, $13,000 labor, 640 man-hours.  wages: (1) 4 independent contractors @$20/hr.  or: (2) 1@ $20/hr.  3@ $15/hr.  $2,600 reserve—–limited liability corporation.  I have added back the $2000 that was stolen from the original labor budget (and added in another $3000 to round out, you shouldn’t arbitrarily take money out of the worker’s pocket.)  I prefer this model, it’s more equitable, there’s a capital fund for business expenses and contingencies, and the workers are fully invested in the business.

Premise 3—–12 houses per year @ $30,000 per house= $360,000.

same model as premise 2 (2), identical business structure and compensation package, just another $5,000 added to cover mechanical work that isn’t in the carpenters’ job description.  still no profit motive here, but at least the workers are receiving a reasonable share of the value they are creating.  for a 600 square foot house, that’s $50/square foot, still less than NAHB $80/square foot.

What I would like to see is some sort of program that fosters building skills in the indigenous population.  All I’ve seen so far is a bunch of upper middle class white kids having a lot of fun designing and building houses.  That isn’t leveling the field, it’s actually maintaining the status quo. By now there must be forty or so young architects who have been through the Thesis Studio.  How many of them would be willing to work for a year building $20k houses under their proposed conditions (Premise 1)?

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langford17 “Any jackass can kick down a barn.  It takes a good carpenter to build one.”  Sam Rayburn

Last week, I had a disappointment.   The previous Friday, Alice and I had driven to Mountainburg (about 50 miles) and bought some gorgeous redwood panels from an old junk dealer.  Perfectly quarter sawn old growth redwood that some enterprise had milled into panels for garage doors fifty years ago, a really poor use for trees that never should have been cut…

The junk dealer happened to mention that he was going to be tearing down an old barn with big timbers the next week.  He didn’t know if it was put together with pegs, “I don’t know much about that sort of thing.”  Turns out it was pegged, which means mortice and tenon, probably braced.  These two yahoos salvaged the lumber before wrecking the frame with a chainsaw and bulldozer.  The joinery (what I call the value-added part) was destroyed, leaving them with a pile of barely marketable old timbers.

Meanwhile, Ben Jackson has just finished timber framing a barn on Bainbridge Island, Washington, for his brother’s farm.  I haven’t seen pictures, yet, but I know it’s a competent piece of work.  Ben helped us with framing the upper room in 2012.  I showed him the layout, saw that he was confident to make the cuts, then left him to work out his process on his own.  When he left us, I made sure he had the skills and tools to continue.

In October, on his way west, Ben stopped in and borrowed a boring machine. Yesterday, I talked with a friend who informed me that good hand hewn eighteenth century barns from western Pennsylvania could be bought, dismantled, cleaned, repaired, transported, and re-erected for $30,000.  For a 1500 square foot frame, that’s $20/sq. ft.  Quite a bit more than the timbers alone are worth.  I could buy the salvaged timbers from the junk dealer and build a decent frame with them, but I just can’t support that level of ignorance.

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The Nature of Gothic

English Tying Joint

English Tying Joint

When Sir Isaac Newton observed that we …stand on the shoulders of giants… did he mean that we should be aware that we are privileged, or that we have somehow conquered the giant?  I’m inclined to believe that it was the former, and that Newton regarded his knowledge and prestige with a certain humility.

Back in the mid 1980’s, I was enrolled at University, ostensibly pursuing a degree in vocational education.  A few weeks in it became clear to me that we weren’t going to actually do anything with that shop full of tools, nor was my instructor particularly interested in teaching anything.  Class periods were spent talking sports with the scholarship athletes who were taking the class for an easy grade.

I dropped out, an old tattered volume of Norton’s Anthology of English Literature somehow came into my hands, and I began reading some of the pieces closely.  A segment of Marx’s Capital, and The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin impressed me with their theories about the role of human labor in the great enterprises of mankind.  Marx and Ruskin were both political and economic philosophers.

Marx intended a benevolent dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers controlling the means of production (and thus capital) through state-run enterprises.  It quickly becomes apparent that Marx had never actually worked at anything, and relied heavily on the assumption that human nature is altruistic.

…from each according to his ability, to each according to his need…

Ruskin, on the other hand, was a born aristocrat, an artist and aesthete of the highest order.  Son of a wine merchant, he had spent his boyhood summers traveling the continent with family and retainers.  Ruskin had a sublime faith in the potential of the common man to rise to his ability,

…it should not be artists alone who are exercised early in these crafts. It would be part of my scheme of physical education that every youth in the state–from the King’s son downward–should learn to do something finely and thoroughly with his hands, so as to let him know what touch meant; and what stout craftsmanship meant; and to inform him of many things besides, which no man can learn but by some severely accurate discipline in doing.  Let him once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick level in it’s mortar; and he has learned a multitude of other matters…

Ruskin defines–Servile ornament: the execution or power of the inferior workman entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher power.  He calls this slavery, and offers a few simple rules for the equitable division of labor without brutalizing the worker:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article in which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind.

Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being.  But you have made a man of him for all that…You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him.  You cannot make both. 

The Nature of Gothic 1851

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$20k House Myth

I have been following (and believing in) Auburn University’s Rural Studio program since I saw Sam Mockbee speak here at the University of Arkansas School of Architecture in ’99 or 2000, shortly before he died.  Later, the filmmakers who produced Citizen Architect were here for a showing, more recently Andrew Frear gave a presentation on current Rural Studio projects.  Particular attention was given to the $20k house, which promises to build small affordable houses for low income people.  All of this is unassailably noble.

Recently, I started designing a small house for a friend, and the talk turned to the $20k house.  Evan and I had both attended Andrew’s lecture, and came away thoroughly impressed with the caliber of work being produced there.  Then, we started crunching numbers, and soon realized that there is no way that the $20k houses can be produced, much less marketed for $20,000.  Not even close.

“A contractor building 20K Houses for 800 people under a rural development grant would put $16 million into the local economy. Financing would come from a commercial mortgage or a Department of Agriculture rural loan program. We figure that since we design 20K Houses so that they can be built in three weeks, a contractor could build 16 houses a year. Assuming a workforce consisting of a contractor and three workers for each house. The contractor would earn $61,000 a year and the workers $22,200 (based on
 a wage of $11.57 per hour, well above the current minimum wage of $7.25).”  

Articles in Christian Science Monitor, and The Atlantic are headlined with the announcement that the $20,000 house is soon to be a widespread reality, Rural Studio will be offering the plans for sale.  There are some minor caveats about the possibility that cost of labor will raise the cost.

“…labor costs will be higher when students aren’t building the houses...”

“The $20K Project involves architecture students developing a range of home plans and prototypes that can be built by local contractors under the USDA’s Rural Housing Service Section 502 Guaranteed Rural Housing Loan Program for construction and homeowner financing.

The Outreach students are embedded in the Thesis Studio and work to further the 20K House. One of the most challenging of all Rural Studio projects, it deals with the question: what kind of house can be designed for $10,000 in materials when the other $10,000 goes for labor costs and profit? This internationally competitive application process only accepts four students each year.

The program is a two semester professional residency for holders of a bachelor’s degrees wishing to participate in the Rural Studio. Participants are admitted and enrolled as outreach students in the non-credit experiential certificate program. Upon successful participation in the program and all related activities, outreach students receive a certificate of completion

Due to the nature of the program, most financial aid programs are not applicable to help with tuition assistance.  Government subsidized loans, fellowships, research grants, and other similar funding programs have not been a successful resource for helping provide tuition assistance due to semantic details.”    Eric Schmid (Outreach student)

The entire thesis (at least so far as it’s been explained to the public) rests on the totally unfounded assumption that in three weeks those three phantom workers are going to build one of these houses under the competent leadership of the equally phantom contractor.  Who are these workers?  Where are they?

This is custom building we’re talking about.  Small houses require more attention to detail, and cost per square foot is relatively higher because features like entry doors, bathrooms, and kitchens are a larger proportion of the package.  A builder whose construction crew has all the skills to build out an entire house is rare these days.  General contractors spend their time driving and talking on their cell phone, the actual work being performed by sub-contract labor (not employees).

Here in Arkansas (and most of the South) masonry, framing, roofing, drywall, painting is the province of marginalized workers.  General contractors, and the licensed trades, plumbing, electrical, HVAC are predominantly white men with an attitude of entitlement.  Amplify that for the profession of architecture, which is pretty much defined by whitemaleness and privilege.

Please read closely:
The $20k houses that they have built have cost significantly less than $20,000.
How’s that?
Materials are donated (RS is 501c3) student work isn’t compensated.
Students are paying for the privilege (looks really good on a resume).
2014 students raised $250,000 on social media, specifically for the $20k house project. It’s pretty high visibility.
Iterations #1 through #9 were 350-500 square feet. According to the article, one house has been appraised at $40,000 which looks like market value to me.

What I am questioning is the singular assumption that a 4-man crew can consistently build these small custom houses in three weeks. There is absolutely no proof (that is the only calculation I have seen: it’s on the website, in the magazine article, and Andrew Frear used the same numbers last fall when he spoke here) but everything is based on that calculation. (originally it was 10k materials/10k labor, later adjusted to 12k materials/8k labor) His calculation was apparently derived from the $20,000 mortgage target.  If there is a spreadsheet, I haven’t been privy to that information.

Meanwhile, the current design iteration has grown to a bit over 1000 square feet, and they are still calling it a $20k house, making the express claim that they (or this mythic contractor and crew) can actually build these houses for $20,000.

Now, Auburn intends to offer the plans for sale. Looks to me like they have branded and trademarked an idea; and even though it’s obvious that a $20k house will cost significantly more than $20,000 they’re going to run with it anyway.

Is this a social justice movement, or a marketing campaign?

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