Teaching the Guild

The following is a rough transcript of a talk presented to the Okemos Chapter of Business Networking International. As typical, I began with a story (lifted from This Old House).

In 1939, Herbert "Hib" Johnson threw a housewarming party at Wingspread, his new 14,000-square-foot residence designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. As dinner was being served in the great hall, a thunderstorm erupted, and water began dripping steadily into the room. Johnson, CEO of the S.C. Johnson Wax Company, phoned Wright in a rage. "I'm sitting here with some friends and distinguished guests," he fumed, "and the roof is leaking right on top of my head!"

"Well Hib " Wright replied, "why don't you move your chair?"

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual impression of architects. As a profession, we are often seen as aloof or egomaniacal. Many people are reluctant to engage an architect, due to this perceived arrogance. In contrast, my practice is to apply my knowledge and experience to develop a creative solution that incorporates the owner’s wants and desires, while incorporating my own input as well as the needs of the community.

The house on the right stands as an example of a design composed without regard to community. It provides no sense of place and is unnecessarily complicated. In contrast, the house on the left addresses both the interior uses and the public’s needs. The substantial front porch is traditionally considered the owner’s gift to the neighborhood. The front elevation – and all elevations for that matter – are carefully considered and thoughtfully composed.

Before returning to Michigan in 2007, I worked as the Manager of Architecture and Design at a Traditional Neighborhood Development. One of my responsibilities was to teach traditional detailing and construction to a group of established residential contractors. All were successful businessmen, but most were more accustomed to with building homes like those on the right in the drawing above. Such homes are anonymous, bloated and entirely lacking charm. The elevations are poorly composed, with the sides entirely lacking any detail. They exhibit tremendous size, but no charm.

In contrast, the traditional design that I was to teach has its own lexicon of terms. Authentic building requires a particular set of skills; while there is no one right solution, there are plenty of wrong ones. It became job to teach these experienced builders to appreciate the distinctions of the house on the left: unique, small-scale detail with strong contextual influences. The home possesses a smaller area, but is designed with very little wasted space.

Knowing that this would be a challenge, we devised a creative way to get these contractors to learn these established patterns of building. We organized a day long field trip where this Builders’ Guild toured authentically detailed buildings, both old and new. There, we conducted a scavenger hunt, providing the builders with a list of twenty details to find, a digital camera, and several detail cards like the following:

The details on these cards can be located above in the illustration of the two houses.

Many of the terms and elements were obscure, but it was crucial that the contractors identify the various details, by name and their proper place on the building. By the end of the day, the Guild was speaking the language, trading picture cards and identifying previously unknown details.

Our task was accomplished with creativity and engagement. We persuaded the Guild to consider, if not adopt, a different mindset: Building is not necessarily about expensive massing and conspicuous complexity. The simple elegance and authentic detailing of the traditional house could build communities that people cared about – not as an investment, but as a place to dwell.

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