The art of construction has increasingly become a matter of assembly of manufactured goods. For example, door framing used to be the art of accommodating specific site characteristics in a careful balance of fitting the frame and scribing in the door. Now doors are pre-packaged with frames, and installed as an assembly. While that definitely speeds up new construction, it is also how I ended up with a garage full of old doors. The ‘contractor’ didn’t have the skill, nor interest, in framing up the salvage hardwood doors. This is a classic example of the shrinking craft, which result in less flexibility or adaptability, which are the skills needed for ingenuity in the field.
One theory is that mechanical skills were learned on the farm, where a ‘can-do’ attitude was out of necessity. Even after the influx to suburbs and cities of the mid-century, kids could at least ‘tinker’ with mechanics on their cars, learning from their dads (or not). Girls learned the construction of clothing, or assembly of food items. But we lost much of that in the 80’s and 90’s to the disposable nature of goods, with electronics sealed tight behind snap-in plastic covers. And so I bemoaned the loss of ingenuity.
Not so fast. It seems that innovation is in our DNA. One of the students who has earlier enlightened me about environmental engineering, again opened my eyes to the world of innovation – as they know it. For example, bicycles. Bicycle components are incredibly accessible, and ripe for tinkering. Many college towns have bicycle co-operatives, where students join forces of tools and time to work on their own bikes, and help out others. And, they experiment, share ideas, form on-line communities, post YouTube videos. Fixed wheel (fixies), cargo bikes, longtail bikes, folding bikes. There is also a bicycle jousting event, which is the source of many innovations.
The plastic boxes of electronics have also been cracked open. Kids buy the old play box consoles, and tap into the electronics for other uses. In fact, this is perhaps the main hotbed for innovation. Open source software is based on communal input for programming. There are scores of ‘work-arounds’ which are developed for other software . Blog sites provide the communal transfer of knowledge that once took place working on a tractor.
|ICF Pitch Roof, Walls, Floors|
So the gene for innovation is not extinct. Perhaps it is just the structure of the construction industry which has made is less available to experimentation, to tinkering. There are certainly several fine examples of materials which have invented, such as ICFs. Can we bring this same innovation to the assembly process, to the constructability, the details? Do students in construction management programs need a shop to hang out in, where they can experiment and invent? Or have a prototype building day during the latter part of the design, for trades people to be able to physically show and share construction techniques, and identify opportunities for collaboration. Creating these opportunities could be a drawing card for our industry to attract these ingenious minds, and keep the craft in construction.