So, Why Don't We Build The Way We Used To?

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In my last blog we talked about how the evolving economic and class structures are changing not only who we are, but the very world we live in. Why? Why do we find ourselves at the mercy of money instead of money just being another tool in our arsenal? Why can't we let money be a contributing factor to our ability to ply our trade, instead of a burden that all too often impedes our ability to reach our goals?

A view of Lincoln Cathedral, now over 1,000 years old and a wonderful part of England's Heritage.

A view of Lincoln Cathedral, now over 1,000 years old and a wonderful part of England's Heritage.

These are big questions which might require big answers, but maybe not. If we break down the affect that money has on our individual trades, we can come up with a long list of "evils" pretty quickly…... People don't understand the value of the work I do. People don't realize that building better is actually less costly in the long run. People don't have enough money to pay for my work. The banks won't give anybody a loan these days…..and the list goes on and on.

If you look at all of these "good" reasons tradespeople have trouble making ends meet they all have one thing in common. They are all about money. I will tell you right now, the best tradespeople I know aren't doing it because they thought it was a good way to get rich (laughter in the background). But there are lots of people out there who think money will make their lives better, and a few of them succeed at getting lots of it, only to realize that what they really need is lots more. Getting rich is not a trade, it's an ambition which can easily turn into an uncontrollable obsession.

If there were no money, there would be no poor people. Poverty is defined as a level of income. If there were no money, would there be no tradespeople? I think not. The truth is money is not what built the world we live in and unfortunately, as I said before, it is rapidly getting in the way of preserving what we have built. What is less obvious, behind the curtain, is that it is also standing in the way of building the world we should be building. Today most of the "building" we see is about money. We are building for the wrong reason.

As a tradesperson I have the opportunity to work on buildings that were built long before I was born. Currently I'm involved in a project that centers around a house that was built over 350 years ago. How much of what we are building today will be around 350 years from now for someone like me to help preserve? Why not? Because what we are building today is about money not heritage. Now don't get your skivvies in a bunch, because I know a lot of the people reading this blog are telling themselves that's not why they build. That's not why I build either. There lies the problem.

Today tradespeople are not vanishing, but we are an extreme minority. My friend Ken Follett often tells me that trades education is at best a double edged sword. If the tradespeople already in our society can't find work, why make more of them so there is less work to go around? Because people need to learn why building things well is important, and the adults, for the most part, already know everything. How many people, who are not in the trades, that you know question why we are building a world full of disposable buildings? Not many. We need to grow more.

Sarah Susanka first suggested in her book, The Not So Big House, that one solution to the problem of McMansioning America was not to increase the building budget, but decrease the building. Her logic being if you spend the same amount to build something smaller, you can build it better. This is not such a bad concept, but in my mind, it still falls short of a more elegant solution. It still focuses on the money, not the value of the building, and that value should be based on its life expectancy.

Every time you turn around these days somebody is telling us we are running out of something. Oil. Trees. Water. What's next on the list? The reality is that we are using more and more resources to create a smaller and smaller future. We can't focus on what we are leaving for future generations when we are focused on a bunch of throw-away stuff which includes where we shop, work, eat and live. If we want a better world for ourselves and our children, we have to build it, and last time I looked you couldn't actually build much of anything useful with dollar bills.

I know I just got done talking about the vanishing middle class and the affect it has on our built environment, but aren't we feeding the monster that is eating the middle class? Every time we bite the bullet to get a job we feed the beast and rob ourselves. In the words of John Ruskin: " It is unwise to pay too much, but it is worse to pay too little." By allowing money to be the motivation for anything we do, we run the risk of seeing its value in dollars. If we want to solve the problem of the two-class system, we can't do it with money. There's no such thing as trickle down dignity.

I feel more strongly than ever that we have to work our way out of this lack of a future that's worth heading toward, and part of doing that is in teaching trades and the value of something well built. Yes, we need to rebuild the school systems, but we also need to rebuild our society. If we can create a Main Street program that is about people instead of buildings, then the buildings that we have stand a much better chance of surviving, and the buildings we learn to build again will have something that the ones being built today for the most part don't have; value. And if we can put value back into our buildings and the people who build them, we will have something of real value to give our children: HERITAGE.