The Decline of Craft


Every one is different…

As winter wears on, I spend more time scheming and planning than building.  My building ideas are just on the margin of convention, and we have implemented them freely in our own house.  Mostly, to be honest, because we have never had any excess of money, and we feel strongly about environmental responsibility and reducing waste.  Our primary asset is an abundance of creativity, and lots of tools.

Timber framing departs from conventional construction methods in that it requires some specific skills and tools, a sharp framing chisel if nothing else.  The resulting frame presents an opportunity to create a vaulted roof, which has many advantages over a typical flat ceiling/attic.  Light and ventilation are obvious, but the real gain is acoustic space.

As I watch how work gets done on other houses, the difference between my approach to craft and the way most other tradesmen go about getting work done is painfully apparent. I learned early the advantages of order in the workplace, from sweeping the floor to stacking lumber to sharpening tools.

[the blind man said] “…most men in their lives are like the carpenter whose work goes so slowly because of the dullness of his tools that he hasn’t time to sharpen them.”     Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

Two distinct features of the current mode are the function of construction loans as the primary financial instruments driving housing, and the near-universal exploitation of sub-contract labor.  Residential construction loans are typically issued on a six-month renewal basis, a practice in which the bank issuing the loan acts as though they are doing you a huge favor even though they are making money on the loan fees.  Their reluctance to renew the loan at six months is mostly cheap theatrics, distracting from the fact that they are once again making money off the borrower, and that they fully expected this action, anyway.

Sub-contract labor differs from the standard employee/employer relationship in that the sub-contractor provides his own tools and receives no employee benefits (unemployment, FICA, health insurance, etc) from the general contractor.  In reality, the sub-conractor may have employees.  He will be liable for withholding taxes and paying benefits on his employees.  This arrangement benefits the general contractor (lower taxes and overhead) but he loses something in terms of quality control.

The time frame established by the construction loan, by the contract, and by various expectations of the owner dictates that progress must be made, regardless of weather, shipping delays, labor issues…Labor has no collective bargaining right, but practically speaking it’s difficult to fire a sub-contractor for sloppy workmanship.  Cost over-runs, change orders approved by the architect, are commonplace.

In most instances, because subcontracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, the scope and quality of work must be clearly presented.  Unconventional work receives high bids, overreaching cost estimates.  Architects become reluctant to design work that requires skills and techniques not generally available, leaving little or no room to be creative and challenging, or to improve existing skills sets.

This is a race to the bottom.  Unless we can provide some sort of craft education for those actually doing the work, and enlist the co-operation of architects and general contractors in developing a better labor force (ultimately a benefit to them), we are stuck in a paradigm of low expectations and workmanship of the lowest order.

About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
This entry was posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, education reform, food for thought, furniture, traditional building, woodworking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Decline of Craft

  1. montucky says:

    Very sad, but true.

  2. Pingback: $20k House Myth | michaellangforddotorg

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