How Can We Reunite When We Are One?

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Over the last couple plus decades I have spent a lot of time traveling all over America and the world attending conferences, teaching workshops and giving presentations. During that time my perception of the relationships between the different and various people involved in traditional building and conservation of the built environment has changed considerably. Some people may say my perception has matured, but the Peter Pan in me rejects such a notion.

During the years I've spent (so far) as a non-profit junky, I have been lucky enough to associate with many talented and generous people. Early on, when I made the transition from student of engineering to plant engineer of an electronics firm called NOVAR, I enjoyed being in a position where I could make decisions about good maintenance of the historic building in which both our offices and manufacturing facility were housed. Having come from a childhood where my maternal grandfather literally built his business, buildings and all from the ground up, I was no stranger to tools and how to use them, so working on the plant I was hired to maintain came fairly naturally.

At the time I never thought of myself as having any sort of status or position based on my education or occupation. When I realized that all of the work I had been hired to do to upgrade and expand the plant and office complex was complete, I moved on to see what other adventures lay in store. Serendipitously, being in the right place at the right time to be a part of creating the Timber Framers Guild of North America, later shortened to Timber Framers Guild, I became immersed in a community of people with every imaginable educational and occupational background. For them, as for me, the desire to pick up the tools and create beautiful structures out of trees was too strong to resist, even though it meant a pretty steep learning curve.

All of these years as a guild member have reinforced in my mind that people from all walks of life can form bonds within their community based on sharing both the joy of learning and the substance of what you've learned. I believe that those bonds are not new but instead are reincarnations of bonds between people who lived and learned before us and that if you go back far enough, the people who built and the people who preserved were one and the same. In truth that is the way it is today as well, although we often tend to differentiate by the names or titles we give to one another. I had to take a crash course on this topic when I was asked to join the steering committee that formed the Preservation Trades Network (PTN).

For those who aren't aware of the history, PTN originally was formed as a task force of the Association for Preservation Technology International (APTI). In simple terms, a number of people felt that the trades didn't really have a voice in the world of preservation professionals as it existed then. Those are my words, but the feeling was strong enough that an effort was made to bring together the people who actually did the hands-on work on historic buildings, and if they had an interest in gathering together, a conference would be planned. This conference was so well attended that people had to be turned away. Not only did it seed the creation of PTN, in its membership roles today are architects, engineers, museum staff, and others, along with the tradespeople with whom they work - all members of the same community.

In very basic terms, I see the field of preservation professionals, from highly acclaimed architects to well-trained stone cutters, as having a common ancestor. The first person who decided to create habitat instead of find it started a process that, combined with the curiosity and ingenuity of humanity, began to change the world we live in today. As building skills evolved and it became clear that there was enough variety in how to build things, people began to specialize in one type of building, like stone or mud or wood. As the amount of knowledge we developed increased, it paved the way for people to begin to specialize in designing structures or figuring out how to make them strong and resistant to the elements. But, I believe, all the while as this workforce developed, the people who populated it worked in a community of early craftspeople that shared resources and knowledge.

Later, when the politics of power came into play, the system of collaboration began to break down as guilds and other entities segmented the workforce and tried to take ownership of parts of the knowledge. In recent times, various forms of segregation and differentiation have both survived in some forms and been created from scratch in others.

Today I recognize more than ever the desire on the part of preservation professionals across the board to step away from any form of separation and work towards collaboration as an important and valuable commodity. This can only bode well for the future of conservation, and in my mind this reincarnation of a unified workforce with the knowledge at hand today can reach new heights in the work we share a common love for.

From September 30 through October 3, APT and PTN will be holding parallel conferences in Charleston, SC. The theme for this year's International Preservation Trades Workshop is "Cornerstones: New Foundations in Preservation.” Part of the text describing the event states that ". . .PTN and APT are reuniting to define a new approach to interaction between preservation professionals and the preservation trades."

I am so looking forward to attending those conferences, but I wish the theme had been "Improving the Foundations of Preservation.” And as far as the reuniting goes, I'm betting that it is mostly going to be about old friends, who may have different jobs in a common field--saving historic structures using calculators, CAD machines or corner chisels--but who will enjoy seeing each other again and sharing what has happened since they last met and being glad that PTN and APT never separated in the first place. They just focused on their particular interests, as we all tend to do.