Materials & Craft

Our primary work at South Mountain is making things—like houses, furniture, porches, and pathways—that are visible, tangible, functional. We try to make things—neighborhoods and houses and parts of houses—that will have lasting value for generations. It’s surprising how few people in this country actually make things like this anymore, and how few make things at all.

The people who make things are craftspeople. Craftspeople have strong feelings about that which they make and how they make it. Sometimes there are elaborate discussions in our shop about a single piece of wood—recognizing how the grain runs, how it grew, and where the strength is; considering the orientation that will work best for the function intended; speculating about how to tease out all of its beauty and how it will finish. Conversation ranges seamlessly from the overall qualities of the product to the most subtle and detailed elements of the process.

Craftspeople take their time. You can’t rush quality; it develops at its own pace. You can’t rush the skills of craft, either. They have to be learned and absorbed over time.  We have people who have been learning the skills of craft their entire lifetime.

The pleasures of craft can soar above the tedium that—at least some of the time—characterizes all work. When we make something well designed and executed, it is a telling of the truth. A piece well made reveals how we think and what we admire. Craftsmanship translates well to different scales—everything we make, from a knob to a neighborhood, can be imbued with craft.

Work is a chance to develop worthy expressions of craft in all its parts.

The spirit of craft leads us, like the Balinese say, “to do everything as well as we can.”  The imperatives of craft create an internal set of standards devised by the maker (child development experts say that this sense of being in control is one of the most important characteristics of play). The craftsperson or team of craftspersons makes the whole thing, from start to finish. The superior work that results from creating a workplace that engenders the spirit of craft is what makes it possible for us to fulfill the wishes of those for whom our work is done. They are expecting something authentic to be made especially for them. But they are not our most difficult taskmasters. The difficult ones to please are the makers themselves.

We, the makers, are never satisfied. Every design has flaws that we don’t see until it’s built. Each building could be detailed more coherently, each chair could fit the body just a tad better, and every color could be one shade closer to artful perfection. We grumble, we assess, and we curse our imperfections. We are gratified when we get close to perfection.

Materials

An important part of craft is the materials we use.  We are careful about our use of materials.  We consider how materials are manufactured, and where, how well they use resources, and how healthy (or not) they are for those who make them, use them, and live with them.  We are constantly educating ourselves as new information becomes available and new materials and building systems are developed.

Woodworking has always been an important part of our business.  For many years we used large quantities of old growth redwood, cedar, cypress, and douglas fir. As we watched the quality of the material decline, we became dissatisfied about using material that was disappearing at a rate that far exceeded its renewal. In response, we decided – in the 1980s - to source wood for our projects in new ways. We made the use of reclaimed lumber – “experienced wood”, our friend Merle Adams calls it - a priority, and our practices changed dramatically.

We learned that there is a wonderful and widespread salvage resource, but that using reclaimed wood is an intricate and subtle undertaking. The successful use of salvage requires large inventories, a good network of supply, specialized equipment, and careful integration of design processes to encourage best use and the right material for the right job.  At this point somewhere above 90% of all our exposed exterior and interior woodwork is reclaimed.

Our wood comes from many sources: wine and beer tanks, pickle barrels, dismantled warehouses and water towers, barns, de-constructed houses - you name it. A wonderful by-product is the stories and histories that come with the wood.

Our wood comes from many sources: wine and beer tanks, pickle barrels, dismantled warehouses and water towers, barns, de-constructed houses - you name it. A wonderful by-product is the stories and histories that come with the wood. We share these stories with our clients in their owners' manuals. For example, our bread-and-butter wood is reclaimed cypress which is mined from river bottoms in the south. This material, known as "sinker" cypress, is timber that sunk to river bottoms in the South during the era - around the turn of the last century - when they were logging the old growth cypress forests. We deal with several salvagers in the Northern Florida panhandle and Southern Georgia. They dive the rivers, haul the great old logs out, mill them into rough boards, and we have them shipped to a kiln and mill where they are dried and dressed to our specifications.

When salvage is not appropriate, we try to source lumber certified to come from sustainably managed forest, such as Maibec white cedar shingles from trees grown on lands owned by Seven Islands Land Co. in Maine. The Maibec Company in Quebec buys their cedar from Seven Islands. They make wood shingles. We buy their shingles.

In addition to wood, we try to use as many materials as possible that are recycled and/or recyclable. We use tiles made from old automobile windshields, roof shingles made from discarded tires and sawdust, carpet made from soda bottles, insulation made from recycled newspapers, and many architectural antiques.

We also try to put to good use local resources that are being discarded.  Here’s a story about “undevelopment.”  Katherine Graham's son, Bill, was left, after her death, with an 8000 SF summerhouse built in the '20s. It was located at a magnificent spot that Bill had loved since he was a kid.

He wondered what to do with this white elephant of a house in its magnificent setting. And suddenly, one day, it came to him: undevelopment. Just take it down and the spot would become even more beautiful. But he didn't want to waste it. He called us to look at it. He wanted to know if we could cut it up and move it and make affordable housing out of it. It was way at the end of a long narrow dirt road flanked by stonewalls.  It wasn't feasible to move it without cutting it into tiny pieces. But it was an incredibly evocative house, rich with fine materials.

"How about this?" we asked him. "Why don't you pay us to dismantle it piece by piece? We can save 90% of the material and you can donate it to the Island Affordable Housing Fund and we'll use it to build affordable housing. " He agreed enthusiastically. Undevelopment. Now that's a concept, isn't it?

For three months 12 people worked in that house day in and day out.   About 50,000 BF of fine lumber was salvaged, along with assorted other fine materials. At the end two stone chimneys were left standing in a magnificent restored landscape of native grasses.

It's not always possible to deconstruct buildings slated for demolition. Some just don't lend themselves to it; more often owners don't want to take the time or pay the money (it's very labor intensive). But it's disturbing to see the wealth of valuable materials that find their way into the landfills. We are always working on new ways to save more and more of the treasure that now goes to waste.

 

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