Friday, January 8, 2016

The Parts of the Building That You Never See

Painted masonry chiseled out above the line of the future suspended ceiling,
to accommodate future electrical conduit for fluorescent lighting
Late in his book Little Rice, NYU professor Clay Shirky describes an apparently common sight for Western visitors in China: even in foreign-owned luxury hotels, like Sheraton, lightswitch plates are often attached cockeyed. Wallpaper is hung slightly out of alignment. Drywall has visible unpatched seams. Shirky presents these design quirks as proof that the Chinese aren’t willing to go that extra mile to ensure visible quality. Not like us Westerners.

I read Shirky’s book while working construction, building a public works project, a new municipal high school. Writing my review, I ignored his implicit dig, knowing most readers won’t understand the significance. For many people, buildings emerge whole from the ground, like corn. Indeed, many people, mistaking the machines tipping precast concrete wall panels into place for the entire construction process, blithely ask: Why isn’t that building done yet? Then they wonder why I blocked them on Facebook.

But as we enter the home stretch on this school, I’m noticing some traits around the building that deserve some greater level of comment. I’ve noticed cinder-block walls, already painstakingly erected, painted, and enclosed within the building, being broken back out with chisels to run heating ducts and electrical conduit. I’ve seen parking lots partially paved, then abandoned literally for months. I’ve seen how sloppy Western construction really is, below the surface.

Trash wedged between two pieces of completed cinder block wall, probably by the masons.
Right after this picture was taken, we placed straight wood trim along the wall edge.
Roofers will cover this trim with insulation and rubber, and the trash will probably remain
hidden inside the walls for the life of the building.

Remember that scene in Witness, where Harrison Ford joins the Amish community in raising a neighbor’s barn? Audiences largely agree that’s the movie’s most touching moment, when Ford has learned to share and cooperate. It shows him becoming open to community in ways city life openly discourages. Alongside dancing with Kelly McGillis in the garage, that scene probably did more effective outreach than the Amish have attempted in two centuries.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t represent how construction gets done nowadays. Getting the neighbors together to raise a timber-frame horse barn makes perfect sense, but most Americans are unwilling to live Amish-style lives. We demand electricity, central heat, cable TV and Internet access, and more. And public buildings like schools go further, requiring science labs, gymnasiums, and other specialized facilities. Do you know how to wire a computer lab?

Me neither. And neither do most people. Construction today is a highly specialized process, subdivided among numerous subcontractors. As a result, this workplace is undoubtedly the most segregated job I’ve ever had. Not only are tasks strictly allocated among companies (and turf wars as hotly contested as drug territory), but there’s often severe racial division among task categories: the brickmasons are overwhelmingly black. Concrete workers are mainly Hispanic. Welders are largely white.

And each group, in pursuit of their separate tasks, largely ignores how their tasks step on other workers’ toes. I work directly for the general contractor, and my job is largely to ensure the subcontractors have whatever they need to do their jobs. This means I often spend days, even entire weeks, doing tasks subcontractors wouldn’t notice unless they weren’t done, like building safety rails or sweeping floors. I’m basically the jobsite’s invisible man. So I’ve seen things other workers might rather ignore.

I’ve seen, for instance, how many workers regard the entire jobsite as their general ashtray, garbage receptacle, spittoon, and in extremis, urinal. I’ve swept up strangers’ tobacco loogies, removed their piss bottles, and gathered empty McDonald’s cups they just tossed aside. For me, that’s become an emblem for just how inexact the construction process really is. That’s what Clay Shirky misses: those cattywampus lightswitch plates only make visible what Western construction workers try to hide.

Once you have the opportunity to witness a building’s creation from within, you realize just how intricate the process really is. Especially when deadlines loom, workers prorate what levels of precision really merit their time. Laying cinder blocks involves extremely precise measurements, so masons accept if blocks sometimes look uneven. Moving electrical conduit involves moving PVC, wire, and connectors very long distances through blind avenues to remarkably exact destinations, so if doing so involves walloping off chunks of masonry, who cares.

When we view construction projects like this from outside, it’s easy to complain that the process isn’t already done. It’s easy to poke fun if we notice workers apparently lounging, and grumble about “our tax dollars at work.” But there’s an exchange. What appears slow from outside actually progresses lickety-split, because doing it correctly involves more steps than you realize. Your building is remarkably complex, and more intricate than you realize. So if your switch plates are lopsided, how dare you complain?

Vinyl heating ducts run from a rented furnace through temporary partition walls into a
half-completed gymnasium. I was the only one who saw this. That is, several people looked
right at it, but I'm pretty sure I was the only one who actually saw it. And now I can't unsee it.

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