Thursday, December 17, 2009

Google Wave for Historic Preservation Projects

Within our small company, where our core capacity is to assist architects and structural engineers in their investigations of historic structures, we have been playing with Google Wave for more than a month now.

At first our reaction was, “What do we do now?”

It took us a while to catch on but we have increasingly been opening a Wave for every new project that goes to contract, and for every project that we have in the funnel with a hope to lead it to contract.

For the most part our projects are fairly quick. Our focus is on a rapid turn-over of 1-3 day field gigs with a combination of a long-range activity in our collaborative Business Development services that we undertake with a small number of associated partners.

Though there are a number of collaborative web based services that are available, and we have used and continue to participate in a bunch of them, we have found that Google Wave provides something that works fairly well for us. But what works for us is an asset that in itself may increase the confusion for others who want to use Google Wave – we like simple tools (screwdrivers, knives, hammers) and to build up complicated systems from scratch.

For more than twenty years I have been using my own scratch built estimating spreadsheet (begun with Lotus Symphony on an AT, but even before that on a Commodore 64, that I used to manage the cash flow of a $20M project) that as the years and the needs change I change the template and refine to suit the specific needs to estimate for all sorts of historic preservation projects.

But these complicated systems that we use are built on an aggregation of simple pieces. A drawer is a drawer regardless if you have three or four-thousand of them.

So, to have a toolbox of communication tools, as Google Wave provides, gives us the fine tuning with simple pieces that we need in order to adapt the media to the results of the desired goal of efficiently sharing of many different pieces of relatively simple information.

For collaborative work-teams on historic preservation projects it helps to be able to share and make accessible project information and files (regardless if it is room to room or country to country exchange).

Here is a list of comments on information pieces that we have assembled for our own in-house reference:

1. sharing of pdf documents

or other forms of documents that we have shared software for team members to be able to read/write/collaborate, though if we turn a written document into a pdf it is a whole lot easier to share it across platforms... and not everyone has the same document generating software, or the interest to use it

2. sharing of photographs, photographs can convey a whole lot more information in a hurry than a written document

quite often the information that a team member needs in order to take an action is information that we don't know that they need, in that case it is better to share information that we might think does not matter because we simply do not know what is important, or not

these can be photos that we take or they can be reference photos that we find online

progress photos

3. sharing of videos... same as for photos, lots and lots of information delivered in a painless manner

our original videos, store them elsewhere then connect them into a Wave (these can be project specific, or safety, training or how-to vids)

or find videos for reference online and connect them into a Wave

an engineering friend in Texas shared a video on replacement of rivets in an historic bridge and suddenly we had a more encompassing concept of what would be needed where we were being asked for a cost to extract rivets for testing on a bridge in New York

4. maps.... it helps if everyone knows where we might be going (in our case the logistic of where is the nearest clean and warm public bathroom is often a critical item in the success of a gig, or, as in one case, "Where is the water?")

satellite and 3-D views when they are convenient

how far away is it? how much will it cost to get there? Do we need a boat, a barge or a really large balloon?

5. information links

find URL links related to project sites and quickly aggregate them into a Wave where team members can use them for reference, quite often these links contain contact information that we would not otherwise think to connect with

6. cost information

entire estimate spreadsheets may not be the best use on a Wave, but small amounts of cost information can easily be shared (a short list of unit costs for a bid – information required under very short deadline by another team member who is assembling the bid package)

Google spreadsheets can be incorporated into a Wave, but we have not the incentive to move existing Excel estimate templates into the Google environment

7. convenience

having information about a specific project on a Wave makes it accessible from wherever we happen to be, it is also accessible when we have the time to make the access and not necessarily in-our-face like an e-mail that requires that we deal with it before we forget where it went

accessible from different computers, wherever we can gain access to the internet

we can access project information from a smart phone while up on a lift at a survey gig, eventually we may be able to figure out how to input information directly from the field as easily as from the office

8. contact information management

if we get in the habit to put contact information for individuals related to a project into a Wave then we all can share management of the information, I look forward to more tools along these lines

everyone on the team will know where to find it, we will avoid calling each other looking for contact information when we cannot find it

it will facilitate the 'team' to be able to move quickly when contacts need to be made in a hurry

9. team expansion

as a small group of team members becomes familiar with 'simple' uses of Google Wave then we can begin to add on, and bring up to speed additional team members (I can hardly wait until we have real-time language translation in a Google Wave)

10. project specific

Waves can be used to assemble collective information about individual projects that enables a team to work together as there are more team members with access to information pertinent to the project, and different teams associated with different projects can very quickly be assembled

11. task specific

Waves can quickly be built out from project specific Waves in order to put focus on specific task goals, once the goal is accomplished then the task specific Wave can be archived or erased, or folded back into the root wave for the project

12. scalable tools

though Google Wave at first appears to be an intimidating blank slate eventually new tools will be developed that will broaden the range of activities that collaborative project teams can engage with, the limit on tools is the human imagination and the need to solve specific problems

one example of such a tool is ongoing work on integration of collaborative real-time mind mapping (we like mind mapping for strategic planning)

another example is project related calendars, and ability to send out e-mail notifications from within a Wave, and other project management and scheduling tools

Friday, November 20, 2009

Three Syndromes for Traditional Trades

In reading a column on problems that consultants have with their profession it occurred to me that traditional trades (and all the rest of us in histo presto) often have similar problems in our work when we are brought into projects, particularly at a late stage or to follow after someone else that has already mucked up the scene.

The consultant framed their issues as 'syndromes.' I assume this to mean situations that are encountered on a frequent basis and often enough to be noticeably a problem.

1. The first syndrome is coming in after someone else who didn’t do a good job.

In my book when we get to the jobsite we call this 'sloppy seconds'. There is nothing quite like when we show up at a project and find out that the previous contractor did a half-A job then split to 'unknown destination' and left a dumpster half-full in the parking lot that nobody, but nobody wants anything to do with removal from the site (been there done that, was not happy with the follow-up visit). Or the brownstone façade that is all mucked up and requires an extraordinary amount of fuss in order to straighten it out… and the end-client does not understand why (if they were overly parsimonious to begin with that could have been a root cause of the current scenario) and they are suspicious that they get ripped off once again… and they double-up on driving the 'qualified' carpenter nutso.

In historic preservation work it is more important than in almost any other construction industry to involve traditional trades early on in the plan process, trades who often bring with them a practical hands-on knowledge as to how to go at a project, let alone that they are the ones that eventually are given over responsibility to handle and interface with the heritage materials.

Then again, there is always a profit opportunity in chaos. Do not call us until you have done a thorough job of making the best mess possible.

2. The second syndrome is walking into a situation where the politics are intrusive.

We arrive invited to look at the problem with the stucco full of obnoxious cracks and we make a polite suggestion as to what to do with it and the ivy suckers.

The client DOES NOT want to involve an architect or an architectural conservator (these days that is like a giant red flag… poor mason with a love to play with stones is not in the business to help psychotic people work through their obsessive compulsive selection processes… I learned from my grandmother to avoid this choice-oriented involvement at all possible cost… I don't really care if the couch upholstery has pheasants on it or mallards – your building may be the most beautiful one on the block but to me it is one of another building, sorry) and the next thing we know is that it is not about problems with the stucco – it is about problems between the client and their family, or their neighbors, or their illicit lover, or their shrink. Yeeish!

I once got mad at the conservancy because they did not filter referrals from property owners to first see if they were insane or not. To have enough money to own a property does not immediately register a person as normal. You may notice this as well with how people drive expensive cars.

The adage that those who know how to hammer a nail believe that all problems can be solved if they hammer a nail is a bit passé.

Nowadays when I look at a project I am not so much interested in the physical aspects of the work as my first question is, "What is the primary problem that we are going to get saddled with here if we say yes?" Oddly, increasingly, we are hired with it in mind that we will solve these 'intangible' problems with a bit of sleight of hand to include judiciously applied caulk.

3. The third syndrome is the one where people are afraid you’re going to come in and make them look bad.

Well, as it is we like our clients and associates, particularly the folks that we have working alliances with – we want them to look good. It is a right golden rule thing to do.

We have no interest to make anyone look bad… well, usually we have no interest. On occasion there comes along someone that makes it very difficult to make them look good, even to make them look half ways decent, and there are the instances where it becomes a survival expedient to make sure that they not only look as bad as possible… but that you don't get any on ya.

We have friends who will stand up and punch it out when they get to this kind of an impasse. We do not agree with them, as passionate as they may feel about the wrongness of the unfairness of the dastardliness of the… in most cases, excepting those that embody a true manifestation of vile evil (in memoriam of a particular lawyer that we don't like), our advice is to wrap it up, smile, walk away.

Life gives us a finite amount of energy between when we are born and when we will be dead. Better to spend it on a laughing adventure than on a war (or otherwise figure out how to engage really good lawyers on your side and then laugh, but not too soon -- we know at least one kool nifty super spiffy lawyer to recommend).

Think about when you have encountered these syndromes in your dealings with project teams at historic sites. How did you feel about it? How did you react? Do you have any tips on best practice? If you are in the traditional trades do you think about these intangible issues with a project before you put your work proposal together? If you need help and you are not too terribly messed up in the head then call us. Then again, maybe not, we have enough problems already.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

PCLS Interview: Rudy Christian

Rudy Christian is currently executive director of the Preservation Trades Network as well as a partner and president of Christian & Son timber framers. Rudy was a past president of the Timber Framers Guild. His interview here will be followed up in a few weeks with an interview of his son and business partner, Carson Christian.

There is nothing quite so amazing as spending an afternoon at a pre-bid walk about, or in a remote church in Poland, or Kentucky, or at the Center of the Universe, with Rudy passionately exploring and explaining the workings of the frame structure to everyone present, at times including his competition. – Ken Follett

See also: Rudy's PTN blog at Traditional Building, A Place for Trades.

Where do you live these days?

Center of the Universe, Burbank, OH.

What is it that you tell people that you do for a living?

Depends on who asks. I have lots of hats, and like my shoes, I try not to wear the same one for two days in a row. When I’m talking to a potential customer I say I’m the president of Christian & Son, Inc. When I’m talking to a reporter, sometimes I’m the President of Christian & Son, Inc. and sometimes I’m the executive director of the Preservation Trades Network. I also have a hat that says timber framer and one that says carpenter, but my favorite one says non-profit junky.

Tell us something we do not know.

Gambrel barn roofs were developed as a response to the hay track. The hay track was patented in 1872, when most areas of the country already had barns with gable roofs, which were built for storing hay that was stacked using pitchforks. Most barns built for pitchfork hay storage had side walls between 14’ and 16’ tall. Using a hay track to load hay meant that the haystacks could be much taller, so after 1880 barns were built with 18’ to 24’ side walls. The older barns had to be modified to accommodate the taller haystacks, and the gambrel roof was the most common solution.

How did you get into doing what you do?

After I decided that spending my life as an engineer was not going to make me happy, I started messing around with carpentry projects. My grandfather built an entire hotel/motel complex in Michigan, and I spent a lot of my summers there as a child. Later I realized that my great-grandfather was a Zimmerman and I was lucky enough to visit the family home he built in Germany. So I guess it was somewhat inevitable I would end up building.

How I got into timber framing was a bit more serendipitous. I’m lucky enough to have a wife/life partner who is not only perceptive but enjoys working with me and reads Fine Homebuilding. After leaving engineering school and drifting into carpentry work I ended up running my own business, named Mycroft Homes. Mycroft was Sherlock Holmes’s smarter brother, but pretty much no one ever got that. The business was successful enough, but Laura could tell it was not quite what I needed to be satisfied or challenged to make me happy.

One day she came to me with a little article in Fine Homebuilding about a timber frame workshop at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but we had managed to collect some antique barn builders’ tools, so we signed up and I took the workshop. It was being taught by several guys from Vermont and New Hampshire and was lead by Ed Levin, who I consider my mentor. It was blazing hot, and we worked all day on an asphalt parking lot from dawn to dusk and never stopped smiling. I decided I wanted to do that for a living; something that made me smile. It does.

Of what projects are you particularly proud?

Thomas Edison Lab Re-Relocation

Louis Bromfield’s Springhouse – “Preservation with Prisoners”

What was the most interesting project that you worked on? Why was it interesting?

The Detroit Farmers Market was and still is the most interesting project we’re involved in as a company. It is, to my knowledge, the only timber frame farmers market still in existence and the most ornate timber frame I have ever had the honor to actually work on.

What is your favorite and least favorite part?

My most favorite part is the fact that once it is reconstructed in Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford museum, the farmers market building will be enjoyed by many vistors for generations to come.

My least favorite part is the fact that after three years in storage the project finally became active exactly at the same time the recession hit, so it is on indefinite hold.

What happened on the best and the worse day?

The best day was when my son Carson and I spent the whole day assessing and documenting the building so he could model it in AutoCAD. It was wonderful to see him so curious about the complexity and decoration and so willing to take on the challenge of modeling it so it could be accurately entered into a relational database during deconstruction for storage.

The worst day was when we returned from spending the July 4th holiday back home in Burbank. Just prior to the holiday the company we were working with, which provided all of the heavy equipment and operators, decided to open a large hole in a section of non-historic brick wall so they could get their equipment inside. When we returned we saw the damage done by vandals who used the hole to get in. Many of the ornate, hand-carved filigree snowflakes which were part of the infill decoration in the braces had been sawn out and stolen. It was sickening to see. They were never recovered.


The members of the Timber Framers Guild and the Preservation Trades Network, without whom I would not be where I am today.

Gerard Lynch has inspired me to work tirelessly at preserving the trades. Lisa Sasser has inspired me to help people understand the value of knowing what is really important to them, and stay on course to get it. And then there is this fellow Bohunk who has inspired me to realize the true value of networking.

If there is one thing that you can say is important? What is it and why is it important? Who cares?

Preserving the traditional trades is important. It is important because it provides insight into the past, which is our access to understanding the society in which we live and the culture we have created. People who are stewards of historic properties care, if they realize that maintaining them requires the same skills as building them in the first place. People with children or grandchildren care, if they want the world we are passing on to them to contain the works of great people and great minds who have been living and worked in it for millennia, which can stimulate the children’s minds and challenge them to do good work.

What advice would you give to a young person starting out?

Be honest before you are anything else.

Do you enjoy travel, or staying in one place?

Travel to foreign counties has changed the way I see the world in which I live. It has motivated me to make my world a better place.

Is there any extra special historic site that you want to visit, and if so, why?

The timber frame temples of Japan. I have met the men who are descendants of those who built them, and I want to see the work of those great men.

Education… what one thing do you think was the most interesting part of your education? Where?

Homeschooling our son, Carson. I learned more about education doing that than in all my own years in the public school system.

What one book have you read that you would recommend?

Understanding Wood, by R. Bruce Hoadley

What one book would you tell everyone to ignore?

Anything by Eric Sloan, unless you just look at the sketches.

Do you prefer artwork or music to books?

Only when I’m overcome by a wonderful piece of art or a great piece of music, but I would never give up my books for them. My books help me talk to people. I tend to buy books about things I’m studying, learning or places I’m traveling to. The books help me explain what I’m talking about, which often isn’t easy for people to understand without a picture or written description. I enjoy writing very much and am actually working on writing a book.

Do you mind telling us a bit about how your family puts up with your career and deviant interests?

Since we have a family business and a family estate, we’re all in this together. I count on them to help keep me focused.

What do you like to do when you are not doing this?

Anything that involves fine woodworking. Our home is an 1815 timber frame church that we deconstructed and relocated from Chenango Forks, NY to the Center of the Universe. We have done most of the work ourselves or with friends, so there are lots of woodworking challenges to keep me occupied.

What is your favorite music? Do you play any instruments? Can you hum?

Live acoustic jam sessions where folk or blues is being played can put me in a very happy state of mind. Since we had to give up our Chickering baby grand piano when we moved out of Akron, I haven’t played much music. I hope to remedy that soon. I played tenor saxophone in high school and was told I had talent, but I don’t have a sax anymore and probably never will. I prefer to whistle badly over humming, but humming keeps me from hearing my ears ring.

If we left you alone what would you do next?

Try to find work for my crew. They are fine craftsmen, and they don’t enjoy or deserve to be without work.

What is your favorite tool?

My six-foot folding rule, which lives in my rule pocket and is always ready for work.

Do you have anyone that you want mentioned here?

My wife Laura is the wisest person I have ever met. What she is doing with me is a mystery.

How do you come at teaching others, at passing on your experience and knowledge?

I use numerous ways to try to pass on knowledge, but I think what’s more important is to motivate people to believe they can learn a trade. They should try as many trades as possible until the one that fits them becomes obvious. We are all born with a tradesperson inside. What is important is to learn how to connect with that part of your being at the earliest age possible. I believe children can learn to use tools before they learn to speak.

We understand that you recently joined the Central Ohio Antelope Rescue Running Squad... and that your most recent volunteer efforts were captured on camera here:

Crisis of Significance

One of the struggles within the historic preservation industry is the interface that all practitioners have with the mass-produced commodity forces of modern life -- the dictation of people as anonymous -- finding our way past the shallowness of pervasive anonymity -- reintegration of significance into our lives... kinda like adaptive re-use for humans.

A final draft of a final video by Kevin Champion for Digital Ethnography at Kansas State University (Dr. Mike Wesch - Spring 2009). For more about where this video came from, you can check out the paper from which it was created: A crisis of significance.

Crisis of Significance by Kevin Champion is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Friday, April 24, 2009

PCLS Interview: Ilene Rogers Tyler

If you wander around in the histo presto universe it is difficult not to get to know Ilene Rogers Tyler and in time become infected with her overwhelmingly generous spirit of curiosity to explore old buildings and share with her peers, whoever they may be on any particular adventure. At the risk giving everyone the impression that a qualification for a PCLS interview is having written a book (which is not the case), Ilene is a co-author of Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice (Second Edition). Google preview here. Amazon here.

Do you have a name? What is it today?

Hmmmm, still going by “Ilene Rogers Tyler,” last I looked. I like using my middle/maiden name, Rogers, because the moniker shortens to IRT, and not IT. IRT feels strong, whereas IT carries someone else’s baggage.

Where do you live these days?

Downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan -- and I do mean downtown. Sold the suburban bungalow seven years ago to really live in, and appreciate, our mid-sized city. Turns out it is the “green” thing to do, ahead of the trend.

What is it that you tell people that you do for a living?

I always say, first, that I am an architect. Then, I might go on to say I work on old buildings, figuring them out and describing what needs to be done to preserve them. I created a book in Shutterfly for my new grandson, and the funniest section is about what I do for a living. Photos of his grandmother climbing on roofs makes everyone laugh, but of course I’m serious about loving to do it and be involved in these projects.

What is it that your peers think that you do every day?

First, one must consider who are my peers? Other architects? Other preservationists? Most, I think, know I’m into old buildings, figuring them out and documenting the work to keep them whole.

Tell us something we do not know.

For three years my husband and I owned a fast food, or short order, restaurant in rural Pennsylvania. We made all our own stuff, nothing pre-packaged, and it was hard work. Been there, done that, and never again. While in PA, we also built our own “experimental” house and had a thriving small practice designing solar homes.

How did you get into doing what you do?

I joined Quinn Evans Architects in 1986, when I needed a job, and the firm needed a project architect to assist with documenting restoration of the Wayne County Courthouse.

How did you first become interested in your career?

High-school Career Day. “Architect” was one of three careers I chose to consider, and I talked to the local visiting architect. Next day, I convinced the high school shop teacher to let me join the mechanical drafting class.

Of what projects are you particularly proud?

Parthenon restoration in Nashville, TN

U of M Detroit Observatory, Ann Arbor, MI

Pere Marquette Depot restoration in Bay City, MI

What was the most interesting project that you worked on? Why was it interesting?

Parthenon, for sure, because I learned so much as part of the team charged with restoring the structure - Greek building terminology, John J. Earley concrete design, classical architecture, museum operations, teamwork.

What is your favorite part?

Inspection and quality assurance. Each month during construction, the project team reviewed finished pieces as they were delivered to the job site. As a unified voice, we assessed their overall design, colors, and mating to the existing structure.

What is your least favorite part?

Flying between Detroit and Nashville was relatively convenient for the job, but never fun.

What happened on the best day?

Flying in the gryphons as part of the completion celebration on December 31, 2000 was a thrill, capping the successful project. Fireworks and country music made it a memorable event.

What happened, if you can handle it, on the worst day?

David Evans died in the middle of the project. This loss had a tremendous impact on the project team. Having to step into the project as Principal, and getting the team to accept me, at the same time as coping with my personal loss, was the hardest thing (and worst day) of the entire project.

Who has been your biggest influence?

David Evans

Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? Or just plain worn out?

Optimist. If you can find something good to say, you just might find yourself believing it. If you say it, then you might affect others in a similarly positive way. Can’t always do it, though…

As a child what career did you want as an adult?

Teacher, 3rd grade, because that was my favorite year. Memorable from that year was the beginning of a six-year process to build our new school. I still have my 3rd grade essay on “The Day They Moved the House” to make way for the expanded site of the new school. This culminated in our 8th grade move-in, with many stories along the way.

As a child what career did you not want as an adult?

Auto parts sales manager. Family business that seemed decidedly unfriendly to women. When I worked there as a child doing inventory, I viewed the work as fun. As a career, though, it did not seem to offer much for me personally. I needed to do something as different from auto parts sales as I could imagine… hence architecture.

Who said that you are an adult now?

I don’t remember…

Did your parents influence you in a positive or negative way?

Positive. Good people and loving parents, but they didn’t understand my need to strike out on my own.

What advice would you give to a young person starting out?

Have a dream.

Do you enjoy travel, or staying in one place?

Travel, but from a home base I really like (i.e. Ann Arbor).

If you had a choice to do something else, what would it be?

More hands-on investigation and restoration of the projects I inspect. Of course, living in a historic house satisfies much of that.

Do you have any pets? If so, can you tell us about them? Spiders and pet snails count.

None currently. By association, I enjoy my husband’s reef tank. Georgie, the Jawfish, has personality. Our two sons have a dog and a cat, respectively.

Is there any extra special historic site that you want to visit, and if so, why?

The Acropolis. Seems logical to see the real Parthenon before I die.

Education… what one thing do you think was the most interesting part of your education? Where?

U of M Architecture School had it’s moments of sheer joy amidst the pain. I always loved our studio classes in Lorch Hall. I made great friends in studio, even married one, and have fond memories of everything but architecture happening there. I guess it’s where I learned about life in my microcosm of college. Sophomore year was the highlight, many stories, no worries.

Please tell us about a few of the people that you like. But not if you really don’t like them.

I like Norm, my husband etc. He challenges me and he supports me; he’s my biggest fan and my worst critic. He’s reliable and he’s annoying. Etc. I like a lot of other people, too, but I’m reluctant to single them out for this survey.

What one book have you read that you would recommend?

I read a wide variety of stuff, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. I suppose it’d be cheating to recommend my own book, but it’s so new that I’m still getting used to the idea of being an author. Co-author, really, but my name is on the cover! So, Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton, 2009.

Beyond the self-serving nature of the above, I really liked Pillars of the Earth, and, more recently, Loving Frank, Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Three Cups of Tea.

What one book would you tell everyone to ignore?

Telling everyone to ignore a book is another form of recommending it, since you have to tell people what to ignore, and that mentions the name more often than it might deserve.

How many books do you think that you own?

A thousand, plus or minus a few.

Are they on shelves or in boxes?

We love our bookshelves, and almost all our books are out somewhere. We have built-in bookshelves in the library and dining room, and bought shelving units in our office. But then I have another couple hundred books in my office at work. I also feel personally connected to the library at work, since I purchased many of them for shared use at the office. These must number into a couple thousand, unless I overrate the collection in my mind.

Do you prefer artwork or music to books?

Books are the best, sometimes with a concurrent dose of music, and perhaps complemented by 2D art. There is nothing I like better than curling up in a cozy chair with a good book. It’s nice when the sun reaches this perfect reading spot, and great if the chair is comfortable enough in which to take a nap.

Do you mind telling us a bit about how your family puts up with your career and deviant interests?

There is a lot of teasing about when I’m really going to set aside my work, or give them more time, take more time off. I’ve even been recorded at four-year intervals repeatedly promising to cut back. My husband and sons always knew they could count on me in an emergency. However, they knew and expected that I would always be working overtime or on projects that looked a lot like work.

What do you like to do when you are not doing this?

For starters, reading a book. When available, walking a beach. Sometimes cooking will satisfy me, with the reward of good food that can be shared. Gardening is a great pastime, but only for half the year. Writing is becoming increasingly important. I have stories to tell, but I need to work on getting them out in a way that is interesting to read. Redoing our kitchen has opened up new avenues of entertainment and dining. Group cooking, like pizza-making or salads or latkes, is not only possible in our new kitchen, it’s fun and safe and satisfying. Gardening is an escape. I like the dirt and having a reason to be outside without too much thinking. It’s a great way to appreciate being at home in the city.

What is your favorite music? Do you play any instruments? Can you hum?

Folk music is my favorite. I can dabble at the piano, but not good enough to sing along with my playing. I like to sing along to my husband’s or sons’s playing, but mostly show tunes or old pop stuff.

Do you like to paint or draw? Or would you rather be carving? Do you like to write?

I took a watercolor class last winter with hopes of doing more on my own. I love the medium, but haven’t dedicated the time to be good…yet. Yes, I do like to write.

If we left you alone what would you do next?

Pick up a book and read until something else happened, most likely sleep.

How about e-mail?

Remember Pine? When email first came out, we had access using Pine through Norm’s teaching at EMU, and I remember the first days of Bullamanka-Pinheads email. Norm hated sharing what he considered spam, and I didn’t know how to get my own address until I had it at work. It’s hard to reconstruct how it all started, and gradually took over my life.

What is your favorite tool?

Camera, if I may be allowed to call the camera my tool. I use it often enough. If you mean hammers, and stuff, I’m not sure if I have a favorite.

What is your favorite material to work with?

Pictures, I guess digital, to create photo books, newsletters, cards, and posters. Does that count?

Do you have any friends or family that you want mentioned?

Husband, Norm. No pets. Sons Joshua (and daughter-in-law Gesara) and Joseph. Grandson Remy Jeht Tyler, born this year.

How do you come at teaching others, at passing on your experience and knowledge?

I love teaching my class at EMU, which transfers to informally mentoring younger staff at work. I love writing about it and presenting at conferences, because the process challenges me to learn new stuff. I love to facilitate the learning process, engaging with those who want to learn, not lecturing at them.

"Life is short, no complaints."

Friday, April 10, 2009

PCLS Interview: John Leeke

John Leeke, based in his woodwork shop in Portland, Maine, has made a career not only as a woodworker but as a writer, with several how-to publications, as an internet videographer, and as a workshop instructor who draws on his extensive knowledge and experience to assist property owners throughout the small towns of America.

His website can be found at Historic HomeWorks.

John recently released a new book, Save America's Windows. It includes a section on how to avoid falling under the spell of the window replacement salesman.

Do you have a name? What is it today?

John Leeke

by hammer and hand great works do stand

by pen and thought best words are wrought

by mind and heart we share the art

My dad said I could be anything I want except two things, a roofer and a cooper. (His joke was, Who would buy a bucket or a roof from a guy named “Leaky”?) In reality an important part of my building conditions assessment and investigation work is tracking down moisture in buildings and discovering the water leaks. When I sit down to talk with a building committee about their roof leaks I overhear the whispered comment about my name, so I crack a joke about it and everyone laughs.

How did you first become interested in your career?

When I was two years old in 1951 my dad built the house where I grew up. In a recurring dream throughout my life I’m about ten years old in this house. If I lean on an interior wall just right I slip into a room that does not seem to exist in the real house. It’s sort of like the stud-space within the wall expands to become an entire room. My vision in there is bluish and a little fuzzy. There are many vertical posts and I can float around through other rooms, it’s like a maze that I can figure out if I don’t wake up too soon. Eventually I find my way out via the furnace room. Back in real life, as an adult, I told my dad about this dream. He grinned and said I was just two years old when he brought me to the house during construction and carried me around through the rooms after the stud walls and were up, but before the plasterers came. That was my introduction to modern building practice. I believe this dream is a memory. It is still a ready reference to that early experience.

Our family spent many vacations visiting my grandma Julia, who lived in a little Queen Anne house built in the 1890s. One Christmas when I was eight we had a big family reunion there. The house was packed full of uncles, aunts and cousins. My dad and I ended up sleeping in the attic. We went up the steep stairs with arms full of blankets, quilts and a candle. It was freezing cold up there. He spread out the quilts on the floorboards from the chimney over under the eaves, then we both crawled back under the eaves and rolled up in the quilts together, rolling toward the chimney, ending up with me between my dad and the warm chimney where it was nice and cozy. The first night we fell asleep counting the rafters up above. The second night we ran out of rafters, so we counted the shingle nails poking down through the roofer boards. They were easy to see and count in the dim candlelight because each one had a little tuft of white frost on it. That was my introduction to traditional building practice. We returned many times to fix the porch posts, mend the screen door, explore the cellar ….

As I grew up the comparison and contrast of those two houses and an early start in my dad’s woodworking shop led to my career as an historic building specialist.

If there is one thing that you can say is important, what is it and why is it important? Who cares?

It is the people who are important. The people who live and work in the buildings, and who work on the buildings now. The people who built them and lived in them in the past. After you understand and take care of the people, then the building becomes important.

Is there any extra-special historic site that you want to visit, and if so, why?

My 8th-great grandfather wrote and published the first English translation of Vignola’s Five Orders of Architecture, titled “The Regular Architect.” It was used by those ingenious tradespeople to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666. I would like to visit some of those classically styled structures to see if I can catch their vibes.

Education… what one thing do you think was the most interesting part of your education? Where?

When I was a kid I thought my dad was teaching me about working with wood. As an adult I talked with him about this. He said, “Oh no, I was teaching you about working with people. We just happen to know about woodwork so the people who need woodworking are the ones we can best help… I was teaching you how to use and make tools, so you can do any kind of work… I was teaching you about connecting with the real world…”

I went to public school to learn the basics, but my real education was when my dad sent me around town to sketch and draw the important buildings. When we meet up, ask me to tell the story about sketching the balustrade at the Nebraska State Capitol Building.


I have hundreds, perhaps over a thousand books. My high school physics and chemistry books are definitely on the shelves. I can’t possibly keep all that good info in my head. So my shelves of books seem like a kind of memory.

I think first books are important. My first trades-related book was Audel’s Carpenters and Builders Guide. My dad had bought the 4-volume set when it first came out in 1923, when he was 17. When I was 17 my dad handed them to me to keep at my own bench.

I grew up in my father's woodworking shop and had my own bench by the time I was ten years old. Occasionally I had questions he could not answer right off. I can picture it in my mind, as I stood at his bench he would reach up to the bookshelf above the bench saying, "Let's just ask Theo. Audel about that." When he bought his Audel's he was just starting in the trades. The small toolbox-sized volumes had a weighty heft that suggested the extensive woodworking information compacted on their thin pages. Gold embossed subtitles like “Cornice Work,” “Saw Troubles” and “Piazza Details” sparkled on the spines like gems--just a hint of the treasury in woodworking knowledge to be discovered within.

On the black leather cover was embossed an emblem, not in gold, but very subtle, barely noticeable: a hammer floating over the sunrise. My dad would take my hand in his and guide my fingers to touch and slide over the emblem and ask, "Where do we seek knowledge?" I respond, "In the east." He asks "What is the carpenter's tool?" I respond, "The hammer." --all mysterious to me, I didn't get it right away, thinking "let's just look up the answer, here's the index right here." Then he would say, "Yes, in the east, at the beginning," as he opened Audel’s up to the title page. At the top of the title page was printed:

"by hammer and hand all things do stand"

So, every time we looked up in Audels, my dad would begin by reading the motto there, "by hammer and hand all things do stand." Well, after a couple years I knew the ritual by heart and by the time his hand was up to the book on the shelf I could cut to the quick with: "begin in the east, by hammer and hand all things to stand." When I was thirteen I had arrived at that place in the east where the sun begins to rise, and I began making rather realistic pencil drawings and my dad said, "Anyone who can draw like that becomes the woodcarver of the shop." I was used to doing what my dad said, so I did become the woodcarver and when I was fifteen I carved a crest out of white oak for a fraternity down at the university. It was acclaimed by the client and by my dad as a "great work." I adapted and adopted the Audels motto as my own:

"By Hammer and Hand Great Works Do Stand"

which has been my motto ever since. So, it’s hard to tell what you will get from a book. Information for sure, but sometimes true guidance.

Do you garden?

One other thing I wanted to be, but did not become, was a farmer. Many of my early grade school friends’ dads were farmers. My own dad picked up on this interest real quick and we began planting trees as a hobby. No, “hobby” is not the right word. It was not an “escape” it was an extension of our shop work that transcended current time and place. The wood we used had started growing a century before us. Our goal was to replace all the trees we used in our shop, twofold, so there would be enough trees and wood for future woodworkers. This was an important part of our real work in this world. Arbor Day was more fun than my birthday and it came two weeks sooner. Over the years we planted two or three thousand trees. I forget the exact numbers—they are marked on a post beside the door of our shop.

I like to plant trees. I have always kept an acorn or buckeye in my pocket every day, so when I find a likely spot I can stick it in the earth. Last year I got back to Wabash, Nebraska, where, 47 years ago, my dad and I stopped by to talk with Wayne Robertson about his walnut trees down along Weeping Water Crick. I had stuck a buckeye in the ground at the edge of the lawn in front his old farmhouse. Wayne has passed away, but I was there with his son who had his little boy along. When I reached around that tree my fingers did not touch on the other side. We stood there talking about how old the tree is and how big it is. We all bent over to pick up a buckeye and put it in our pocket. He said his dad reminded him every summer to not mow down John’s horse chestnut tree. I said the tree didn’t belong to me, it must belong to him since he took care of it all those years. He looked at me, then at his own son and said, “Looks like I’m giving this tree to you.” His boy glanced at me, his eyes widened, bugging out. As he leaned back his gaze scanned up the trunk high into the tree and he fell over on the grass grinning then laughing.

Playing with Faux Doors

This is a steel framed door in a church on 5th Ave., NYC, with a plaster inset panel made with an idea to blend into the limestone wall. The photo does not do full justice to our attempt to get the door in the ambient light of the church setting to become invisible into the wall. We did not make the door, our task was to clean up the existing for Easter 2009.

It still looks good and blends in now that it has had a bit of time to dry out.

Our friend Nick Micros was the last one, pre 2001, to work on cleaning up the door. Since he moved with his family off to Switzerland we get the fun of working in the path behind him.

The plaster takes a good deal of abuse and needs a spruce up on occasion.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Whippany NJ Obelisk

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David and I worked w/ crew from Jablonski Building Conservation to re-erect a marble obelisk that had fallen over. It was a fun gig and we very much like working w/ the JBC crew.

Riverside Park, Probes

Probes done on a very cold day on December 24, 2008.

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