I'm so glad that we're small and take responsibility for what we do.
I have a good buddy who dabbles in construction in Boston when he's not busy being a famous drummer in a not-famous band that no one's ever heard of. We'll call him...Mark. Actually, we'll call him Mark McCarthy, and he'll like it. Mark's worked with us in the past, about eight years ago. He's really not very good, but we probably weren't either so it was a perfect fit. He can drive the hell out of an 18-wheeler without a license, which was equivalent to what we were doing. Like I said, perfect. And even though I've been banging nails for a long time, I wasn't really paying attention way in the beginning before I was even 20. I knew what a 16d nail was because they were...the big ones. I knew what a 5d nail was because....they were the little ones. I didn't give a rat's ass about the science of any of it. I just wanted to buy beer for the weekend and put gas in the truck...and those two things took up pretty much all of what I made. But I think there's an intrinsic value in some people that makes them good at a certain task or set of tasks in life. My buddy Mark sucked at building stuff, but he could solve problems with the best of them, and he's hilarious. He never hesitated to just jump into something and figure out the solution. Did he know how to do it? No. Had he ever seen any of it before? Nope. But he figured it out. And building stuff is largely that: figuring out a solution to something.
You start with a big sheet of blank paper and start solving problems at the conceptual level first, the very beginning of an idea coming to fruition, the very bottom of the barrel that will eventually become a habitat; we'll call this Point (A). Remember Point (A). You draw a lot, imagine a lot, move things around, go through a lot of erasers, lots of hand cramps, lots and lots and lots of coffee, lots of itunes genius playlists....lots of anxiety. This can take days, weeks, months. What I actually do for each project on which we start from ground zero is use a scroll of paper - a big scroll that lets me move from concepts to possible-real-things through the problems and eventually into a solid idea. I have a twelve foot long desk built into a wall in my house and I just stretch the scroll paper across the whole thing, roll up as I need more. I do this even for little projects. This way when I'm done, the client can see how much work goes into actually going through just this first phase of problem solving. I just roll out the 20-feet worth of scroll, and we can go over all of it together, from the little dot at the beginning to the actual image at the end. (Kerouac wrote On The Road on a scroll....and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for this clown over here).
Then, after scrolling, you move into actually walking through a potential build; determining what materials will be used - what sizes, where they can work and can't work; what might be a good idea and what likely isn't a good idea; which trees might be in the way of a really cool idea you have; what utilities are in place already, where they lie on an existing plot and to where they can be moved, or what utilities need to be brought in; who needs to be involved; what committees need to be notified (answer: all of them); how many types of engineers will we need (answer: all of them); how much time will it take (answer: all of it).
Then, after you've done all that, after you've scrolled and walked and bantered and stressed and anxietied and you actually have an idea of what the finished product will be, you begin the ground level problem solving, the meat and potatoes of a project. You've got a drawing: now how do you go from a drawing to an actual "thing" that stands in front of you; a thing that is not only done according to what the drawing looks like, but also according to how the structural engineer wants it; how the building inspector wants it; how the conservation committee wants it; how the historic committee wants it; how the land dictates it; how the budget says it might be done or might not; how the weather says it should be done or can be done; how it's physically possible to be done; and - most importantly and coming full-circle - how the client wants it done. This stage actually involves the physical building, the fun part. ( It also involves a huge mental part too though, which can be not so fun and pretty trying on a daily and nightly basis, because good builders like good teachers don't just go home at 5. That job is with them 24/7 until it's complete. And even then, it stays with you. At least it should.) But now you're solving problems on a different level, but just as important. You have to use the 16d nail that has the correct coating on it and the right millimeter (a full .131 and not the myriad of other choices). And you have to nail them in the right pattern (2 nails every 4 inches on inside corners - which is an ungodly amount of nails). You have to use the correct plywood (4'x9' or 4'x10' sheets in a vertical pattern on walls - not 4x8) and it has to be approved by engineers and international building codes. Then that plywood has to be nailed correctly - and not just nailed - and it has to be nailed with the right nails, and with the right nail guns too - every 3 inches on the edges must have have a nail, and then 6 nails every 16 inches running along the 4' interior. Trim has to be attached with the proper nailing patterns and stainless nails -again a different size and make than all the other nails used so far. Hold-downs and straps and ties and hangers have to be attached too, and they can't be missed. Nails in all of these must be precise, and they must be the correct nail as they hold 80 lbs of thrust force in each nail and will prevent a roof from lifting in a 150-mph wind - again a different size and make than all the others, and these are really important. Granted, you probably have bigger things to worry about in a 150-mph wind, but still.
You might have a shell of a house at this point. Maybe.
If you do, you might move inside now. Plumbing, HVAC, wiring, insulation, plaster. Plumbing has to be in place, pitched correctly, tested, not leaking. It has to be covered with steel plates where it runs through walls and it has to be deeper than the depth of a drywall screw when cut through studs. Don't make a mistake here. Wiring has to be done dead-on. You've only got one shot (do not miss ya' chance to blow!) at getting this right. Lay it out on paper, walk through it before you build the walls, walk through it after you build the walls, do a rough layout of the light-cans in the ceilings and walls, and just don't F it up. Sometimes it's not a big deal if a wire needs to be moved....unless....unless 10 weeks ago you made the decision to use a special insulation that prevents wires from being moved once they're covered, or you're forced into that situation given the parameters of the job. Uh-oh. So don't make a mistake. That's all. Then insulation. There are dozens and dozens of different types of insulations. Which one works here? Which one needs to be used in the ceiling? Which one can be used in the walls, or should be used in the walls? Do we need a vapor barrier? Does this insulation have a vapor barrier built in? Does this insulation have an ignition barrier? Do we need to seal the studs to the plywood with a caulking before we insulate? And oh....you need a 200-amp service to run the diesel compressor that installs this stuff??? Oh boy...how do we get that at this stage??? And we're out of diesel, by the way....and oh, the keys to the truck are also locked inside the trailer.
And we don't have a spare set.
And then at this point....maybe....you can install flooring and cabinets. And then you're almost done solving the puzzle. At least enough to finish this post.
And if you finish the project, you've reached Point (B). It's a long way from Point (A) to Point (B).
Fun times. I love it anyway. It's just an ongoing series of problem solving. And here's where it ties in to the intrinsic trait that some people have and some people don't. Mark didn't have any reason to help us; he didn't have any reason to work with us as we plundered through figuring things out and trying to do a good job; he didn't have any reason to give a shit at all actually (and he usually worked for free just for fun and some laughs....which alone probably shouldn't be in parenthesis). He was ther though as I tried to figure things out, as I stressed and anxietied about the most perfect way that something could be done because I didn't want to just do it the way it had always been done; I wanted the best way. And when I would find that way, there were always people who would grumble and point out why it was a dumb idea or it was too hard to do. But Mark just bucked up and would say, "There are two kinds of people: people who point out a million reasons why something can't be done, and then people who just take the responsibility, take the reins, and get the fucking thing done."
I love that. I've used that line forever since (can you say those two words together??), and I probably repeat it every day a hundred times (along with "go placidly amidst the noise and haste...."). There are those who point out a million reasons why something can't be done, why they couldn't get it done, or why it was done wrong. And then there are the people who just. fucking. get. it. done.
I think this boils down to responsibility. Even when I was building in Osterville - these massive mansions, 15K SF homes with indoor pools and basement ceilings higher than my cottage's roofline - I wanted responsibility. I was the lowest guy on the totem pole, but I wanted the responsibility of something. I've always been insanely frustrated by lack of taking responsibility for something, and lately - which is kind of the point of all this - it seems to be reaching a peak (though I'm sure the bar will be raised again and again...and again and again....).
Through this process of going from Point (A) to Point (B), through the million steps it takes to get there, through all the problem solving that goes on and takes place, through all the steps that are needed to be done absolutely correctly (two adverbs??), from conception to the time the owners sit on their deck and have a gin-and-tonic... I love that the responsibility of the entire thing is on one person. And I think it's incredibly important that the people we work for know that if anything goes wrong, it's my problem to figure out. It doesn't matter if the plumbing leaks - that's my problem. It doesn't matter if a fuse keep blowing - that's my problem. It doesn't matter if a piece of decking keeps popping off a joist for whatever reason - that is my problem. The problem will be solved. It will get done. It's not a mistake, it's just a problem. And a problem is just an opportunity for a solution. No one needs to know the million reasons why it happened; no one needs to know the million reasons why it's going to be difficult to fix; no one needs to know this and that and hoopla and blah blah blah. It will get done.
I went into a certain tire shop today. I won't directly expose them, but their name rhymes with Brown Hair Liar. We have a van. It's got cool tires on it - cuz everyone wants to be a cool guy - and it's also got some cool wheels (being cool is important to us). They're black wheels with a chrome center cap and chrome lug-nuts. Even though yours truly would likely be the first person to have a grey-water recycling system on my totally-off-the-grid underground house complete with composting toilets, I do have an affinity for mechanical things - specifically those of the two-wheel variety, so I know a little bit about metals and how to install nuts and bolts and make them shiny and also not-shiny. Not a ton, but enough. And about a month after getting our cool wheels installed, they began to rust. I called Brown Hair Liar about this issue. I also figured out my own problem by talking with our vehicle guru and electrician, as well as our actual vehicle mechanic about said rust issue. We all deduced that the rust was being caused by faulty installation of the lug nuts, which had their chrome coating stripped off during the hurried process of installation by using an electric impact wrench instead of a hand-torqued wrench, which then exposed the bare steel under the chrome, which then got wet, which then began to rust, which then dripped all over the rest of the wheel, etc, etc. So I went into Brown Hair Liar. Drove the van down, hopped out, went in to the counter, explained the situation. I also didn't fail to mention how expensive these tires and wheels were the first time we bought them. They're commercial-rated tires and wheels (because it's a commercial truck), 10-ply rubber, super heavy duty. All of which translates to: expensive. But that fact shouldn't - and doesn't - matter to me...but it doesn't hurt to remind them. I let them know someone needs to come outside and physically check this installation because there's something wrong. The first person comes out and agrees that the chrome must have stripped off during the installation and exposed the steel and that's why it's rusting, that the lug nuts should be replaced. He says I should talk to a manager. Ok.
I talk to a manager. He says the chrome must have stripped off during the installation and that's why it's rusting. He says I need to talk to his boss, the "head guy". Ok.
I go back inside, tell the "head guy" what happened and hydrate myself figuring that we'll likely take our third walk out to the truck in the rain. The first thing he does - literally - is print out a piece of paper, circle a sentence, and hand it over to me and asks me to read it. I immediately know the direction this is taking. I politely said I didn't need to read anything, I just wanted the problem fixed. My litearcy levil isn't going to solve this particular problem. I don't need to read anything to fix the problem, and neither does anyone else. Just take the lug nuts off and put new ones on. Easy-peesy, we'll all be done of this problem in five minutes and we can all go back to work, like we all want to. He again says to read the circled line. I again say I don't need to. There's a problem, I say, and there is also a solution. I know what that is, you know what that is. I don't want to know why the problem happened; I don't want to know what may have led up to the problem happening; I don't want to know the difficulties in getting it solved. It just needs to be solved. I tell him my buddy Mark would've had this done already, but since we didn't pay Mark two thousand dollars and he's busy being a famous drummer in a not-famous band in Boston, I didn't see fit in asking him to fix it. I also tell him I easily could have fixed this in the time it took for our conversation to take place, but that I'm a principled guy, and that this here problem is a matter of principle. So he reads me the circled line out-loud anyway. And of course, it states that Brown Hair Liar is not responsible for any problems that may take place as a result of installation of Brown Hair Liar's wheels or tires on any vehicle. But he's a good guy, and has been to many seminars on selling and business, so he offers to solve the problem for me anyway: the solution will only cost me $180 dollars, and they'll sell me new lug nuts right now and even install them right now to get me on my way. I politely explain through gritted teeth that there is something amiss, as what I've just heard is that a business can sell someone something, then sell someone the installation of something, and then once sale is complete have utterly no responsibility to said product or installation. He agrees, again. And upon my balking at their first offer of resolution and quietly stating that no, that was not the solution, they get on the bat phones and make calls to who-knows-where (likely the police at this stage), and I can hear them saying 'who is he?' and 'no', and then they come up with resolution #2: for only $90 (because they want to help me) they will sell me new lug nuts and install them right now to get me on my way.
Insanity. It got kind of loud. it made zero sense. I have no idea.
I always use the window install analogy for stuff like this, so I ask him, "Do you own a house?" he says yes. I say, listen to this scenario: You come to me and ask me to install a new window in your house; we then go over all the different options that will work on your house; we decide on a beautiful Andersen cottage-style window...really nice window because everyone wants to look cool (I didn't say the cool part...but I should've); you buy the window from me; you also buy the installation from me; all goes well, the window looks great, you pay us in full. But then a month after we've installed your window, water begins to pour through the walls around this window. You call me to come look at it. I agree that we did something wrong, that this window shouldn't be leaking like this, in fact windows are meant to keep water out, not let it in. And I tell you that I will take care of this problem, and that to fix this problem it will only cost you the exact same amount that it cost you the first time around, that we'll fix the problem that we created that you never had before you paid us to do something the first time for the same amount that you paid us the first time....again. Sound right?
And the amazing part was that he laughed, sighed, conceded, and said, "You're absolutely right. You're completely right. But.... there's nothing I can do. I'm sorry. It says in writing, right here, that we're not responsible for damage due to installation."
It's maddening. I left there with a number for the corporate offices. More reading that I don't want to do. I could've paid the $180 or the $90 and been done with it, but I needed maple syrup at Trader Joe's and that stuff is more expensive than gasoline right now so I wasn't going to fork over the money for something that wasn't our fault. Maple syrup is worth rusty wheels in my book.
I like being responsible for everything we do. We've made mistakes, but the best guy I've ever worked with and one of my best friends, Kane Jenkins, always told us his dad would say there's no such thing as a mistake when you can just fix it. It's true. Take responsibility. Don't point out the reasons why it can't be done, why it's wrong, why it will be difficult to do or fix. Just. Do. It.