Monday, February 17, 2014


The other day I was eating breakfast at a cozy little diner called Sam’s Log Cabin, not far from where I live. The place is pretty much what its name suggests--a rustic little box of a building with log siding and a hipped roof. The inside is just as spartan as the outside: there’s no proper ceiling, and the roof rafters are plainly exposed to view. 

I was savoring my pancakes and bacon, idly regarding the unusual construction, when my eyes came upon a curious thing. Apparently the person who’d framed the roof made a whopping mistake and ended it in the wrong location. You could see where the angled hip rafters were framed in, as if the carpenter thought he’d reached the end of the building, and where additional rafters had been appended to continue the roof another eight feet or so. It was clear that this had happened at one time, because the next stage of the work--the boards covering the roof--plainly continued onto the patched-on part.

The intriguing thing wasn’t the error itself--in construction, mistakes happen all the time. Rather, it was that the evidence was still right there in front of everybody, frozen in time, so vivid and immediate that you could practically still hear the expletives bouncing off the rafters.

Compelling architecture, whether magnificent or mundane, seems to have a common property--an ability to record and reflect the traces of human presence. In a great Gothic cathedral, for instance, the original builders may speak to us through a skillful piece of joinery, a beautiful carving, a radiant expanse of stained glass. What’s more, we sense the presence of all those who’ve entered--the generations whose passage has worn a stairstep smooth, or whose grip has polished a bronze handle to a brilliant patina. 

But magnificent buildings aren’t the only ones with this property. Humble ones--a barracks, a barn, or a quirky little restaurant--can have it as well. And sometimes, the thing that engages us is nothing more remarkable than a plain old mistake.

That, after all, is what lured me from my pancakes into a reverie about what happened on the day that nameless carpenter framed the roof of Sam’s Log Cabin. Did he have something else on his mind--a sick child at home, an argument with a friend, an overdue rent payment? Or did he just down a few too many for lunch? 

We’ll never know for sure, but in any case, the exact hows and whys don’t matter. What matters is the momentary kinship with that person-- perhaps long gone--who was probably not so very different from us, and who has reached across time to give us a metaphorical nod of recognition. Sometimes that person touches us with beauty, and sometimes, as in this case, through a personal foible of the kind we’ve all experienced. Either way, the inert matter of architecture has briefly assumed the power to remind us of what it means to be human. Two pancakes, two eggs, two strips of bacon, and a quick lesson in humanity--not bad for $6.95. 

Monday, February 3, 2014


Some years ago I was walking through an old Victorian house that was being renovated. In one room where the original wall framing was exposed, I found a curious bit of workmanship. One of the two-by-four studs had been carefully notched about halfway up, and a small hardwood wedge had been driven in. After a moment’s study, the reason became clear: the two-by-four had been badly bowed, and rather than cutting it up for some lesser purpose, the Victorian carpenter had used an age-old but effective trick to make it straight again. Then he’d installed the mended stud in the wall along with the rest.

Why all this effort to save a single stick of lumber? The answer demands some historical context. In Victorian times, labor was cheap, but building materials were not. Hence, a carpenter would think twice before tossing out a crooked two-by-four if a few minutes work could make it useable. The carpenter’s time, after all, was a trifling expense compared to the cost of that two-by-four.

Today, the situation is exactly reversed. Lumber and many other building materials are relative bargains compared to the cost of labor, which typically consumes at least two-thirds of the building budget. Hence, a modern-day carpenter wouldn’t bother fixing a crooked stud because, given his hourly wage, the time he spent would easily exceed the value of the lumber he was saving.

There’s no doubt that this situation often leads to unnecessary waste, because it’s ultimately cheaper to use extra material if it speeds up the work. For instance, a hefty 4-by-12  header is typically installed over windows and doors even when it’s structurally unnecessary, simply because it takes less time to install than numerous smaller pieces of lumber. 

On the bright side, though, escalating labor costs have actually forced the construction industry to become faster and more efficient. Among the earliest labor-savers were fully pre assembled windows, which arrived in the 1930s (previously, windows were built on site, either from stock parts or entirely from scratch). 

The construction exigencies of World War II spurred another great labor saver--gypsum wallboard. So-called “drywall” did away with the tedious process of wet plastering, which entailed nailing up thousands of feet of wooden lath, applying three separate coats of plaster, and waiting for days while each coat dried. 

After these developments came pre-hung doors, manufactured roof trusses, modular cabinets, and all the other prefabricated components so important to reducing onsite labor. There’s no doubt that mass-producing components in a purpose-built factory, immune from weather, dirt, and damage, is more efficient than building them onsite. The only downside is a subtle but unmistakable aesthetic change: As houses increasingly trend toward being mere assemblies of manufactured items, most of what meets the eye--windows, doors, cabinets--has the unvarying consistency you’d expect from mass-produced products. 

Hence, there’s less and less distinction among houses, and fewer and fewer traces of the individual prerogative that was a hallmark of hand craftsmanship. This, I suppose, is the price we pay--for the prices we’re paying.