small building company

One summer during college a couple of friends and I built a potting shed in the backyard for my dad. His passion was sculpting bonsai trees, including making concrete pots to house them. We called it the house of two birches wedged as it was into the corner of the yard between existing trees. I designed the door handle & latch on the theme of a branch and hired a Mennonite smith to weld it. It was my first design-build project and I was hooked. After graduation I worked for a general contractor for a year, as did a colleague of mine, and we then struck out on our own launching Small Building Company. Our specialty was creative projects with limited budgets, often working with colleagues to build their early design commissions in Toronto. As young entrepreneurs we were eager for work and so our bids were often low, but we managed to make a modest living, had some fun, and gained a lot of experience to boot.

After a five-year education in architecture it was great to actually build something, seeing tangible results at the end of the day. As much as I enjoy the process and theory of design, in an academic setting it can become an end it itself. That trend took hold in the profession at large in the 1980s, when work was lean and architectural theory was paramount. The postmodernists (e.g. Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves) were on the wane, and the uber-modernists (e.g. Rem Koolhaus, Daniel Libiskind) were on the rise. For some architects theory and publication was a springboard to practice, while others were content in the academic realm. Part of our motivation to work with our hands was perhaps a reaction to that trend. We wanted to reconcile the profession of architecture with the act of building. We were inspired by the likes of Jerzy Devil, a design/build company that went off the grid to build some fantastical structures.

I found carpentry skills to come naturally, having enjoyed shop class back in high school. There was a pleasant fusion of left and right brain thinking involved in laying out a project, problem-solving, and the craft of measurement, cutting, fitting and finishing. Certainly there were tough moments and plenty of mistakes, but it’s the satisfaction of process that I remember most. When the work is going well you can enter a meditative zone, created by the synthesis of hands and heart. More recently in working on my own house and D.I.Y. projects, I find that the balance has shifted somewhat. I think it’s the difference between having the full attention of time, space, and tools that I had as a carpenter, vs a more haphazard approach I find as a weekend warrior. The satisfaction of craft is still there, but it takes more effort to drop into an unhurried pace that’s essential to reaching the zone.

We picked up many skills along the way, from cutting and patching, to drywall taping, to working with subcontractors. We also rented space for a shop and so were able to create built-ins and other custom elements for projects. One develops an appreciation for each trade and what’s expected, a.k.a. the industry standard. Yet there is a wide range of construction material and qualities of assembly available, so one finds a territory of comfort in which to work. A limited budget could bring us down to the low end of that realm, but below that we had to turn work away. It was important to us to find subcontractors who worked in a similar range, with at best a kind of shared ethos. With carpentry and other skilled trades, there is a tendency toward a high level of craftsmanship no matter the budget. With experience we learned to estimate closer to that bar, and include a level of profit that’s essential for a small business to survive.

Project management for me involved more of a learning curve. I was less inclined to plan ahead than I was to focus on the work in front of me. I remember once ordering a number of wood columns for a porch over the phone, giving just the diameter. My partner overheard me, suggesting a sketch to confirm the order. In this case the columns were to be a fixed diameter, quite an unusual specification. Without a sketch we’d have received standard, classically tapered and detailed columns. I gradually learned to think a job through, noting the steps and the requirements of each stage. It takes time, and with experience we began to see farther ahead as well as where the potential problems might lie.

The entrepreneurship involved was an appealing aspect of our venture. The typical route for design graduates involves seeking employment, perhaps doing small projects on the side, with a long road to greater responsibility or creating one’s own firm. In establishing Small Building Company we were calling our own shots out of the gate. Our company lasted just five years as our interests began to reach elsewhere, but that independence is something that attracted me to architecture in the first place. Though I admire the teamwork found within certain firms, in my own experience I just haven’t found the same fire in working for others that I find as an entrepreneur. I did pass through the crucible of internship, exams and registration, but soon went back out on my own, this time as an Architect.

The craft of building is a collaborative effort with each participant making an essential contribution to the whole. Experience with various trades has given me an appreciation for their skills and challenges. At my desk designing construction details, I can’t help but consider how various elements will be brought together in the field. Thinking through the steps of assembly and the desired result, I am constantly refining those details. An appreciation for the process also helps me locate where attention to craft can provide delight within a project, and that a skilled maker will be the one to create it. And when it comes to working with tradesman on the job-site, experience in construction gives one a shared language to discuss issues with a certain level of street cred.

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