handmade architecture

Recently the idea of handmade architecture has gained popularity, popping up again as it does from time to time when the spectacular effects of rampant development give us pause. And as usual, a retrogarde eye is cast on the works of primitive cultures, wood-carvers, and Arts and Craft style architecture. These are unquestionably hard things to dislike, yet the architect inclined toward modern design is often at a loss as to how to reconcile a desire to practice in a “handmade” manner and still operate within the real context of the modern construction industry.

With the reduction or downright elimination of ornamentation that is characteristic of the modern house, the available opportunity for craftsmanship is dramatically reduced, at least the kind of craftsmanship that historically has created signature, memorable instances of the craftsman’s handy work. On projects I have been involved with these opportunities typically consist of very limited cabinet work (specialty drawer fronts, bookshelves), specialty finish steel fabrication (handrails), and very rarely custom tile work.

That is not to say that there is not a great deal of very special and very handmade craft going on. Only that it is in areas that are commonplace and not especially “creative” such as stone countertops, wall finishes (plaster), or concrete texture. I work with some of the finest flooring installers, tile masons, roofers, siding installers, and electricians, but I don’t believe that even the full repertoire of the work they do on my projects conjures up the traditional image of craftsmanship much less anything handmade.

So while one can indeed lament the demise, at least in modern influenced contemporary building, of handmade craftsmanship, one can continue to seek the essential characteristic of that approach, which is working with someone who cares a great deal about the work they do, is meticulous (if not downright obsessional) about their work, and delights in stepping back and simply studying what they have done, learning from it, and showing it to others.

There is something to be said, as well, for shunning some of the heretofore respected crafts as having become empty clichés of once great styles of design and methods of working. In particular, I am troubled by the frequently vulgar excess of woodworkers who believe that the greater the variety of wood species incorporated into a project the finer it will be. (I usually direct them to look at Roy McMakin’s work.)

I find that my relationship with my sub contractors (who are really my contractors) is the single greatest determinant of a successful project. As far as hands go, I would describe it more as hand holding than hand making. I want to know the full range of what they can do, what they’re afraid to do, and what they simply can’t and then show them some examples of things that I would like to do, have seen done, or have done in the past, and work with them toward developing that into a finished work. This includes discussing how they work, what the materials they work with are, how those materials should be handled, what are the associated liabilities (short and long term), and of course, what it’s all going to cost. Since this dialog takes place with all contractors on my projects, I am just as eager to show off the craftsmanship, if you will, of the HVAC system or the garage door opener, as I would the tile work or the bronze railings.

And so, if my projects don’t have any scrolled banisters or leaded glass windows, please don’t neglect to detect the care and precision, as well as judicious application, of the work that has gone into making these houses which ultimately reflect not the current practices of the construction industry but very concise, intentional choices about what I want the house to look and feel like.

Here are a few of the people I think are truly craftsmen!

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