The Death of the Craftsman on the Evening of the Empire.

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Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

A great story and as usual Leo Tolstoy covers the peasants, artisans and aristocrats of the Russian Empire. Anna is the soul of the story but Leo Tolstoy was very fond of the Russian people and when he created characters he often left it up to the reader to understand the meaning behind the tableau.

Today the building industry has taken some hits from the recent economic crisis. For years we have operated as mavericks in the Wild, Wild West of the building industry. Fun was had at the expense of creating a professional industry and like many other industries a proud and capable workforce is now retreating behind the skirt of lobbyist concerns.

In residential remodeling hacks are proliferating at the expense of the more professional and licensed participants, it was only inevitable after 50 years of growth that special interests would apply standards that are misunderstood and poorly enforced. The good guys lose this round. The hacks and big box stores seem to be winning.

What about the consolidation we have been told would come, it has, little bits and pieces of highly systemized remodeling companies that capture market share, but never manage to capture the essence of building craft. Consolidation means low wages and punch clocks to a highly independent group of tradespeople. Many would rather earn a meager living as self employed craftsman than be low paid mechanics for modern builders who have taken craft and replaced it with unit priced product installs.

Tolstoy shows how Levin came to appreciate labor one day.

Levin, an aristocratic landowner in Anna Karenina grew to understand how the hand that wields the scythe blade is also the hand of a complete man. Here’s what happens when Levin decides to cut hay with the peasants

Levin with an energy initially born of frustration lets off a little steam cutting the hay. Its simple and mindless work to him.
In the process he discovers many things, its harder than it looks, it takes some skill, and it requires a kind of thoughtless effort.
In doing the work he finds there is a solidarity that is easily shared by men who understand the deeper meaning of sharing a burden and begins to finally see all the little bits and pieces of the job he never considered more than a simple labor.

The quiet teaching of the more experienced hands, the stopping for lunch as a measure of time, the picking the occasional mushroom for the supper pot that night all bring Levin to know much goes on he never saw before. As a little more time passes he begins to understand the effortless and seemingly unskilled cutting is really a ballet of mind and body performed by a society of equal and resolute proud men. The sparse conversation and silent understanding of labor open Levin’s eyes.

It finally becomes clear, what looked easy and unskilled is really a well practiced and comfortable series of events. Looking at the laborers he never saw past what he considered low skill and mindless tasks.

Today we are seeing the Levins appear. National trade groups are drinking the Homers cool aid and want us to drink it too. We are told that systems and processes will produce better results, we are led to believe timely completions and new products are the salvation of our industry. Nothing is said of craft, it is now all business. I agree we do need better business practices but at the same time we need to resurrect a proud and skilled workforce. They need good pay and a reason to learn their craft.

Consolidation will not come as planned, remodelers won’t drink the cool aid because they know the only benefit they can truly keep is the pride and independence they pay so highly for. National companies will come and go but the worker will always be needed to build what the designers sell. Now is the time to raise the bar for individual industry professionals to unite against the BIG mentality that has watered down the best we have to offer.

Now is the time to act individually to not back down and join the blandness we are told is ideal. Hold strong and fast to your ideals but try to support your colleagues in the profession we have come to love.

Paul Lesieur/ Remodel Crazy

3 COMMENTS

  1. So true, good craftsmen and women are worth the cost. My husband and I remodeled fixers and built a spec. He became skilled enough to layout and frame but it was slow. The pro builder next door had closed escrow on his property next door before my Jim could call the roofers.

    We covered our expenses but could not make a living as small-time invester-contrators. Later, as real estate agents, we saw how little the public knows or cares about quality workmanship. Even high-end buyers didn’t know the difference between radiant in-floor heat and forced hot air.

    Very discouraging!

    I tell all in my new book, “Santa Fe Dreamhouse, Encounters in the Land of Enchantment”. Adobe, plaster, flat roof.. the pain, the glory!

  2. This is an excellent post. It gets at the essence of what we, as a society, risk losing due to business process efficiency…and assembly-line approach to construction. Yes, costs can be reduced and profits maximized but at what point in this squeeze-play do “real” expenses build and have we surpassed that point? I believe we stand to lose lasting value and national character.

    I happened to read the article during a weekend where I attended a local home show. During the show, while speaking with people from many trades I was heartened to hear their stories, take the firm hand shake, and witness the pride many of these artisans exuded. They represent the opportunity for our country to retain character…to avoid the cookie-cutter geography where the customer experience is the same no matter where you go.

    Dare I say a national treasure is at risk?

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