This book is about the work of architecture and craftsmanship that goes into building a house, and the deep satisfaction that comes from doing those jobs well. It contains lessons about not only creating physical structuers but also the parallel tasks of creative people in other professions.

The first step in the process was gathering requirements and putting down a design on paper. The design was known to be imperfect, a starting point for iteration between the architect and the builders. As the designer put his ideas on paper, the sketches themselves became a source of inspiration pushing him toward what the house “wanted” to be (in the phrasing of architect Louis Kahn, see p. 56).

In this case the architect was a soft-spoken man designing his first house, so he did not always push vigorously for his own ideas. Over the course of the project, though, his confidence grows:

If he is not disposed to be a martinet, an architect needs to be a salesman. Bill is a good one…. About his own views, he often seems diffident. He gropes for them. He stammers. His deep, deep voice cracks slightly. What he’s driving at is sort of this and kind of that, and he must ask if you see what he means. But then, in the midst of such qualified talk, Bill calls a halt and says, “No. Not sort of. It is.” (p. 59)

One way that Bill persuades his clients to accept his recommended style is by marshalling historical evidence for the its popularity in the area where they have chosen to build. Although he departs somewhat from the bare facts, his arguments are accepted. As his client explains, “It’s sort of like an ad, you know. You won’t drink a beer you don’t like, but if you like an ad for one, it might help you decide. If he had told me this particular design was a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s, it would have pushed me the other way.” (p. 65)

After the initial blueprints are drawn, the builders begin construction. They know that the design is not completely finalized and that by starting their work they will help to push it along. “You’re always making value judgments, you know, about what’s straight or plumb, but sooner or later you gotta nail it. You’ve got to have confidence it’s right enough, or if it’s not, that you can fix it.” (p. 107) Once the framing is in place, one of the builders “thinks back to that forbidding-looking framing plan and he says, ‘It doesn’t look nearly as complicated now. When you start building, it makes sense.’” (p. 139) This type of evolutionary, iterative design-build-design loop is common in other fields as well.

The author also takes an interesting side trip through the world of forestry economics, discussing the technological progress that has been applied to raw construction materials. For example, in 1980 America harvested about the same amount of timber as in 1900 but was able to do more building with it. This is in part because wood is used far less for fuel, and partially because plywood is much more efficient: “To cover 100 square feet of floor with boards, you’d need to use up 10.1 cubic feet of wood, but it only takes 5.2 cubic feet to produce the plywood taht will do the same job.” (p. 115) The transformation from rough timber–which still resembles a tree–to commodified lumber is an almost alchemical one (see pp. 123-125).

Another interesting detail is that even in the age of written contracts, so many of the specifications for a house are still based on oral discussion and mutual understanding. The phrase “in workmanlike manner” did the heavy lifting: it specified a widely agreed-upon standard against which witnesses could compare the quality of the finished product. As the variety of building materials, designs, and roles on the job site has increased it has become difficult for workers across specializations and geographic areas to reach consensus about what constitutes “workmanlike manner.” Consequently, written contracts have grown longer as they attempt to spell this out in legal text (see p. 279-281 and the end notes).

Given its thorough explanation of the building process and its attention to engaging diversions like the ones above, this book is highly recommended for anyone interesting in creative pursuits or the economics of how raw materials are converted to livable dwellings. This is the best book I have read all year.

Similar books reviewed on this site include The House by the Lake and How Buildings Learn.