In 1980, when Hurricane Bob ripped through Martha’s Vineyard, it tore down a big hickory tree alongside Humphrey’s Bakery in West Tisbury. We took the butt log, hauled it to our yard, and milled it into planks. Until a few months ago they sat on stickers somewhere deep in our wood storage building waiting for my son Pinto to make a rocking chair for me and my wife Chris.
Pinto’s a superb woodworker (and one of my fellow owners at South Mountain), a sublime musician, a great Dad, and many other things that make me proud. (No bias here, of course). The rocker is so artfully crafted that to look at it takes your breath away and to sit in it makes you sink into reverie and wonder who will be sitting in that chair in 200 years.
Pinto grew up watching and helping my colleagues and me build. He wandered around the shop. He made stuff all the time. I didn’t grow up with that. But I did have shop class in seventh grade with Mr. Eddy. I built a slalom water ski out of mahogany. To bend the tip I had to slice it with a bandsaw, glue in lots of small pieces and bend it on a form. I wasn’t that good with a bandsaw, so if you look at the edge of the ski in the picture below (I still have it today; it’s gathering dust in the rafters of our shop) you’ll see that the laminations wander.
The laminations may wander, but the ski is true and the experience of shop class was so memorable that I remember it clearly almost 50 years later. The thought of that shop class – which is a dying part of our educational system – leads me to the juxtaposition of craftsmanship, factory-produced housing, and the work ahead.
In a 2006 essay called “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” (which has become a book of the same name that I haven’t read – the subtitle is “An Inquiry into the Value of Work”) the author, Matthew Crawford, makes a case for the importance of manual work and craftsmanship:
“Skilled manual labor entails a systematic encounter with the material world, precisely the kind of encounter that gives rise to natural science. From its earliest practice, craft knowledge has entailed knowledge of the “ways” of one’s materials – that is, knowledge of their nature, acquired through disciplined perception and a systematic approach to problems.”
Eliminating shop class assumes that it is a good idea to herd everyone into college and get them busy in front of a screen as soon as possible. It assumes that there is little to be learned from manual labor and little value to society. But who’s to say that the “jobs of the future” in a “post-industrial” economy are more fulfilling or more valuable?
Meanwhile, Inga Saffron wrote an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer in January called “City’s Green Groundbreakers” about the Philadelphia Four, a group of rising design firms that see architecture “as a weapon in the battle to stave off environmental ruin.”
The four are convinced that conventional building methods are as obsolete as “hunting and gathering.” Building takes too long, wastes too much, and costs too much. “Rather than attempting to make our system greener, these architects are bent on overthrowing it,” says Saffron.
It’s all about digitizing what we build, electronically sending models to factories, building under controlled conditions, and snapping together components on a site.
Doesn’t sound so new, does it? It’s the old modernist call to arms, which has been going on for a century, and still nobody’s figured out a way to do it better than the Sears Roebucks kit homes of the early 1900’s, which combined craftsmanship with factory production and automation.
(Between 1908 and 1940, Sears customers ordered about 75,000 houses from the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalogs. The houses were shipped by rail all over the country. Each kit home contained 30,000 pieces, including 750 pounds of nails and 27 gallons of paint and varnish. A 75-page instruction book showed homebuyers, step by step, how to assemble the pieces. Many of those houses still exist.)
Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, the elders of the Philadelphia Four, wrote a manifesto called Refabricating Architecture in 2003 that says that buildings should be produced like airplanes and cars.
I’m not convinced. A large part of the process of building has already found its way to the factory – building is more a process of assembling manufactured parts than ever before. Maybe most of what can successfully be produced in factories already is.
This is especially true of the big work ahead in the building realm, which (in the times of diminishing resources and declining population to come) will be about fixing the buildings we’ve got in transformative ways. Deep Energy Retrofits for profound energy use reduction, increased comfort, and greater durability.
Here on Martha’s Vineyard there are 18,000 existing buildings. Each will – at some point – need to be brought into the 21st century, or just thrown away. This is true of the entire developed world (in the developing world the story may be different).
This work is not going to happen in a factory. It is going to happen with teams of well-trained designers, engineers, technicians, analysts, craftspeople, tradespeople, and laborers.” The digital information will flow from studio to site rather than from office to factory. Much of the digital information will be collected at the site, in the same way that a craftsperson collects information “through disciplined perception and a systematic approach to problems.”
Craftsmanship is the practice of staying with a pursuit for a long time and boring deeply into it to get it right. That’s not something we want to disappear; it’s something we want to encourage. We’re trying to learn to do Deep Energy Retrofits this way. Let’s bring back Shop Class, get the kids away from the screens for a bit, and let them make their own wandering saw cuts which will, in due time, straighten out. Mine did. Sort of.