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Just Like the Good Old Days?

Now Hold on a Second ...

Through no effort of my own, I ended up belonging to a singular group of society that saw their professional careers arc in an almost perfect trajectory with the PC revolution—from mid-1970s to present. I’m 62 now, semi-retired, wildly handsome and seated in front of the best home computer money can buy if by “money” we mean “not more than $500 including monitor.” Prior to retiring, I was in building construction. It was an adventure lasting 44 years. I started out in building materials, gravitated to residential construction (first field, then office) and then capped it all off with a quarter century in commercial general construction, working primarily as a cost estimator and project manager. It was a great run.


Today however, I’m trapped in conversation. It’s with an old cohort of mine, roughly the same age and who happens to share a similar career path as my own. The current status of our discussion is disagreement. The topic dividing us is the impact of computers and automation on the building construction industry. Generally speaking, I’m pro computers and automation while my comrade (we’ll call him Earl because that’s this name) likes to opine and lament over the “horrifying and apocalyptic carnage computers and automation are inflicting on our once venerable industry.” Though acknowledging some benefit, he says the digital age we live in is slowly eroding our culture and taking away from “what it means to be a builder.”


“Oh pleeease, dooo continue,” I jibe, egging him on.

Memory Lame

He begins with his grandfather. He always begins with his grandfather. “Grandpa was a carpenter—not like today’s carpenters, mind you. Gramps was a REAL carpenter, those rugged, calloused gladiators who didn’t mind getting dirty and seldom complained! These were men (women didn’t exist back then) who knew what they wanted and who didn’t mind putting in an honest day’s work to achieve that end!” I mouth the words along with Earl as he speaks: “These men were warriors who worked with their hands, never knew cellphones, and toiled from sunup to sundown to provide for their families and build this great, great country!” My leg has fallen asleep, which I hate because now it will be up all night.


These guys were craftsman in the purest sense of the word. They didn’t have CNC routers and laser cutters to make them look good. Their work came from the heart! They could sculpt crown molding from green logs and dovetail drawer bodies with nothing more than a butter knife! I ask why grandpa wasn’t smart enough to use a chisel instead of a butter knife but Earl refuses to acknowledge my existence. Today, our whole industry is an assimilated bunch of office-dwelling, flash-driving geeks pounding away at their laptop keys and clicking away at their mouses (mouse’s? mice? meeses?). And don’t even get me started on those spinny, shiny drones flying all over God knows where!

Gag Me with a Spoon from Grandpa’s Toolbox

I follow up my previous question to ask if grandpa’s co-workers thought it unusual for him to keep butter knives in his toolbox. I wonder aloud if grandpa ever thought to seek professional help for his cutlery obsession. No response. Apparently, I am no longer in the room. Earl rails on for another 20 minutes or so and covers a variety of topics ranging from a man’s word, walking rafters in sub-zero weather, and the benefits of using a box joint over “those damn biscuits!” It’s a heartfelt diatribe interwoven with selective sentiment, chronological snobbery and smatterings of bigotry. Then the big finish. Earl pauses for effect, sighs softly and, staring into a horizon only he can see, proclaims: “It sure isn’t like the good ol’ days.”


That’s my cue. I begin my rebuttal with a story of a business trip I took shortly before retiring. It was a three-day affair sponsored by a group of automaton suppliers to the construction industry and was set up so that the first two days were spent visiting job sites to witness a sampling of today’s latest, greatest autonomous and digital industry applications. The third day was for reviewing what we’d seen, in roundtable, open-discussion fashion. It was a remarkable trip. Though I thought I’d been keeping up, I was surprised at how fast these applications were advancing, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning.


In fact, the technology advances so much, the main focus is becoming less on the technical aspects (which we’re conquering) and more on the social, moral and ethical questions that go along with living in a society where humans are no longer making key decisions about our day-to-day lives. But of course there was much more than AI. There were loads of other fascinating and improved applications in architectural/engineering design/presentation, global positioning system, costing/budgeting tools that updated supplier costs in real-time, and even robotic systems that could perform masonry or hang drywall on site.


But if I had to choose, I believe the thing that affected me the most had to do with the advances being made in 3D printing applications for construction. We’re not talking small-scale stuff here. At home, our U.S. Marine Corps used a large 3D printer to print an entire pedestrian foot bridge—and then went on to print a 500-square-foot barracks in less than 40 hours! Then we learned about companies all over the world turning 3D-printed homes a reality for everyday consumers. And it’s not that 3D technology is limited to Earth only. Scientists are currently working on a method to 3D print habitable structures on Mars using extracted natural carbon in Mars’ own atmosphere! Just how cool is that?


I glance over at Earl. His eyelids are drooping. I’m losing him; time to switch tactics. OK, Earl, if “new and exciting” doesn’t do it for you, what do you say we take a closer look at this rose-colored good ol’ days world of building construction you’re so quick to herald? Remember, I was there too. So let’s go back and remember what, say, 1970’s construction site was really like and reassess for ourselves how grand it all really was.


My first real job was in building material sales. Part of my duties was to periodically visit local construction sites in an attempt to hawk my company’s goods (mostly dimensional lumber, sheathings and nails). It was 1977 and a Friday. Since I wasn’t yet 20 and construction workers still terrified me, it was about all I could do to interrupt one of them long enough to ask for the person in charge of the site. The worker would then, without looking up and without further acknowledging my presence, impatiently gesture with his trowel toward a pitted and pocked trailer at the back of the lot. This was the site superintendent’s office.


The trailer would be (always) resting slightly akimbo on hastily erected foundation elements made up of cinder blocks, 4 x 4s and concrete remnants. A deeply suspicious set of scrap-wood stairs with no rails would lead to the front door. The steps were always greasy with mud, and today it was all I could do to wrestle the case of 12-ounce, longneck bottles of Old Milwaukee beer up the stairs and through the slim trailer door. This was a Friday ritual. My boss would raid petty cash (beer money), put me in a company truck, send me off to deliver these malted offerings to 1) our best customers and 2) people we wanted to be our best customers. It was generally between 10 and 12 stops and often took up my entire day (or as far as my boss knew, that was the case).


I’d always save my last delivery of the day for the client I liked the most. If they weren’t in a hurry to get home (or to the bar), I’d sometimes then stick around and share a cold one with the superintendent and crew. They’d tell me old sailor stories and make fun of my youth, and I’d smile and take it, still happy to just be out of the office. Once we were good and lubricated, we’d launch our empties into the open excavations like hand grenades and yell, “Incoming!” Amazingly, the more we drank, the funnier it was.


But I digress. Back the purpose of my visit.


Once inside the trailer, I’d plop the case down on the plan table and greet the superintendent. Sometimes he’d be glad to see me and sometimes not. It all depended how the day was going. If my visit was of the happy variety, we might chat a while and I’d make a half-hearted attempt to get my sales spiel in. When my visit was ill-timed (perhaps there’d just been a screw-up on the site and tempers were elevated), I could sense it almost immediately. My measured, master plan of retreat was then to abandon the beer, forget about selling anything, and flee the site in a manner similar to the way Tokyo crowds fled Godzilla.

Brave New Worlds

But this time was OK, and as this superintendent is building up to the riveting climax of his story about the porta-potty blowing over in the wind, my mind and body acclimate to my new surroundings. An important note here: If you’ve never been exposed to the 1970’s Construction Jobsite Trailer experience, well, you really haven’t lived life alive. Picture crossing over a threshold from a lovely autumn day outside into a surreal and disturbing landscape of visceral attack. Every sense is assaulted. First, there’s vision. Immediately you are overwhelmed by the—ah!—décor of our new surroundings. No, you don’t see OSHA posters or wage notifications or EEO announcements, or even progress schedules, cost-code sheets or emergency phone numbers as you would today. No, in place of this administrative puffery, adorning each and every available square inch of interior wall surface is a patch-worked assembly of full-color pin-ups, pullouts and centerfolds featuring (shall we say) young, voluptuous women of the clothing-optional variety.


Not that you could see the postings all that clearly, mind you, but the next thing forced upon you is of a respiratory nature. It has to do with the sudden absence of clear and breathable air. This is due to the fact that in the 1970s, typical interior jobsite trailer air is composed of 3 percent oxygen, 7 percent leaking propane from canisters stacked in the corner, 12 percent aggressive body odor; and the remaining 78 percent filled out with cigarette smoke. There are moments you can’t make out the person at the other side of the room. You converse using sonar and profanity. And we haven’t even gotten to the senses of smell (port-a-johns), hearing (air hammers) and touch (I still can’t talk about it!). Today, the Surgeon General would simply slap a huge red warning label on the whole thing and then find the nearest bar to drink away the horror of what she’d just witnessed. And this was only 20 minutes’ worth of one site in one town on a single Friday! We haven’t even talked about the fact that this was a time when OSHA had (on a good day) four employees in as many states, women and minorities were systematically discouraged from joining the trades, and formaldehyde, lead (lead wasn’t truly regulated in paint until 1978), asbestos (asbestos wasn’t officially banned until 1989) and radon were welcome additions to any newly constructed home. Yes, sir, it was a great time to be lucky to be alive!

Closing: Foundations

But it would be disingenuous on my part not to confess to a part of me relating to Earl’s argument. Sure there were things going on back then that would, in retrospect, horrify the purveyors of political correctness today, but if you really think about it, that could apply to pretty much any time in history. And it certainly wasn’t all bad. It was a time when you could leave materials on site overnight and have them still be there in the morning. It was an era when verbal contracts were still common and going back on your word as a gentleman simply wasn’t done. And maybe I, myself, am being selectively sentimental, but I do seem to recall a different temperament and respect for the occupation back then, something almost romantic. I do understand why Earl would lament over what it means to be a builder, even though after all these years, I’m still not sure I could define it.


But I do think Earl is wrong about one thing. I’m not convinced that the level of reverence or respect for something like, in our case, being a carpenter craftsman happens on the job site. I think it’s too late by then. I’ve got a hunch it occurs much earlier in life and on a far more personal level.


Long before my beer-delivery duties started me down my own professional path, I enjoyed spending Saturday mornings puttering in the corner of grandpa’s workshop, building (my 5-year-old rendition of) tables, workbenches and bird houses out of scrap wood grandpa would generate from his latest project at the time. Grandpa was a carpenter by trade and though he never outwardly boasted or bragged about his skill, I never failed to marvel in awe over the skill and craftsmanship that went into his creations. It was magic to me. As I’d tinker in my corner, grandpa would pause periodically to oversee my “work,” correct me when necessary, praise me often and console me each time the hammer met my thumb. It is a memory of remarkable content. Even today, it calms and normalizes me during moments when I need re-establishing of my own foundations or a re-connection with who I am. So yeah, I guess I get it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for round two. “Hey Earl! Tell me about your grandpa again!”

S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager who worked for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.

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