Friday, October 1, 2010

007 Metabolic Rates, Speed and Consumption

“Take any part of this book and go to the end of it. You will find yourself thinking of the next step to be taken in that direction. Perhaps you will need new materials, new technologies.” John Cage, "An Autobiographical Statement"

Do we live in the fast lane, or do we live slow and savor every second of our time on the planet?

In either case, fast or slow for a restoration project an histo presto estimator needs to be able to apply an appropriate cost value.

Fast or slow there is a disparity between high and low metabolic rates in the manner of learning that a workforce experiences when they work in differing geographic environments. This disparity of rate of skill learning, and differences in understandings of traditional materials and building processes from one geographic area to another can have a subtle and easily ignored impact on an estimate for historic work.

The rate of metabolism is the amount of energy used within a period of time. In our case here we are talking human energy expended as individuals, as tradespeople, as design professionals, as communities of teams working together on historic structures.

It is easily noticeable that the metabolic rate of human activity and social interaction of all types in a dense urban area tends to be higher than in a rural one. People who work together learn together. People who work close together in groups inevitably talk and educate each other in working groups, and where there is a concentration of specific types of work there are specific sets of skills retained, learned or expanded in their development.

When I first became aware of this notion of metabolic rate connected with geographic location was on a visit from Brooklyn to a meeting in Washington DC at the National Trust offices where I was asked, as an aside and not directly relevant to the topic of the meeting, “What do you think of aluminum siding?”

At that time we lived in Greenpoint-Williamsburg, Brooklyn in an Italian neighborhood where the aluminum siding salesmen had in the 60s and 70s gone bonkers and covered over all of the gingerbread and Victorian 19th c board-work of the three and four story building stock. What I saw around me was an aging aluminum siding that presented not only aluminum, but color selected by property owners with an expression of their own cultural aesthetic, and a community that had obviously bought into the expressed merits of aluminum siding. As a built environment in itself I found the exploration and detailing of what can be done with aluminum siding to be quite interesting and inventive. So, my initial reaction to the question was that I like aluminum siding.

Though I knew that there was something wrong with my answer I had not put the aluminum siding there on the facades, so I did not feel culpable for the existence of it, and I was curious and remain curious what will be decided in future to maintain or restore it. When the aluminum siding falls off there is often an asphalt faux brick/stone sheeting, and when that falls off there is wood clapboard siding, where it has not rotted, a case in point of preservation by neglect. Occasionally a house can be found where aluminum siding was never applied and the original fabric of the wood clad structure is intact (most often unpainted), and quite often the original carpentry work is elegant in simple details. To make repairs to aluminum siding when it fails can present as many conundrums as needed to restore historic brickwork, just that nobody on the larger histo presto radar particularly cares about aluminum siding. And I agree that there are a whole lot of envelope and moisture related problems with aluminum siding, as well as with vinyl and that neither material is the zero-maintenance solution that many homeowners may have bought into.

The person who asked me was the executive director of an historic trades training program for the National Park Service, an architect by profession, and it was quickly apparent to me that they did not like aluminum siding.

I note that, and based on my subsequent years of experience,  that the National Park Service is not likely to initiate a program for restoration of aluminum siding, any more than they are going to be interested in restoration of historic house trailers, even if they have a few in their remote desert portfolio, but that if there is going to be a revival or development of the trade skills needed to restore and conserve aluminum siding it is likely to be driven by the local fix-it-upper folks in the urban communities of the likes of Brooklyn where aluminum siding is prevalent and concentrated.

Skill sets develop and are maintained based on an employed need. We have only to look to the development of the Brownstone revival industry, where stone facades are often scraped back and replaced with a faux brownstone stucco, and colored-stucco is the trade practice that is learned, to wonder what the future preservation movement will look like around aluminum siding.

But, moving on, in the New York City environment there is a concentration of tall masonry buildings and likewise a concentration on a workforce that becomes accustomed to the methods and skills employed to maintain and restore a masonry building stock, and to work on tall buildings. When one moves away from the urban concentration, say north into Westchester and Connecticut the historic building stock tends more toward wood construction and the buildings are lower in height and thus craftspeople who work in more rural environments learn to practice a different set of skills with a focus on differing materials than their citified peers. In this respect metabolic rate is associated with a geographic determinism rooted in the characteristics of the local building stock.

When one is looking at estimating labor costs when moving traditional trades between zones of rural or urban, even when from urban to urban (Boston to Philadelphia) then a consideration has to be made for a whole set of factors that may not be so readily apparent when estimating new-build work.  In new-build work materials tend to be highly standardized and building methodologies applied to standardized materials tend to be similar where labor is perceived in an estimate as a commodity that may only require a cost-of-living factor of adjustment between one place and another. The process of labor and time involved in installation of sheetrock in Chicago is not going to differ in any significant manner from that in Houston, though what will differ is the local labor arrangements, wages and cost-of-living. Though a traditional plaster wall will require a similar amount of time and skill and methodology in New Orleans as in Scotland, there are trade skills and qualities of understanding and practice that are quite specific to local areas of concentration.

Regardless, not all differences of quality of level of needed traditional skills can be attributed to an urban or rural difference. Often differences are rooted in the natural environment where the traditional materials were derived, and in a context of historic transportation technologies as to how at the times of the original construction the materials were moved around. If a particular clay pit on the North Fork of Long Island was used to produce Salmon brick and the brick, which appear unique to the local area, were then moved to the local building sites by mule cart it does not provide quite the same dispersion pattern of building material as if they were moved by barge or rail.

Thus one can trace out the dispersion of Rosendale natural cement around the globe as it went by barge and boat and, as there is a slightly different method of working with the material when repointing stonework than if one is using a contemporary Portland cement based mortar it would make sense to employ tradespeople in restoration that are familiar with working with the historic material. But the number of tradespeople familiar with working with natural cement is going to be directly proportional to the application of the material in restoration work. If natural cement is not used, and other materials are substituted for it, then there will be a differing set of trade skills employed, even though differences of methodology may appear very small and subtle they can exist and they can have an impact on the end result and likewise on the overall cost of the restoration process.

A case in point, as to rural to urban, is the task to import a blacksmith, let us say from the Berkshires, with an idea for them to do in-field forge welding of wrought iron on an historic cast iron fire tower in the middle of a city park, on top of a tall rock, surrounded by a local network of drug dealers in Harlem, armed with golf clubs, cell phones and plenty of lookouts. First one has the cost to take the time to find a blacksmith willing to work in the city (there is not much call for blacksmiths to have established shops in Manhattan), hopefully a blacksmith set up to do portable work, and then one has to deal with logistics to get them situated to the top of the rock, and one needs to make sure they are happy (quite often rural folks are just plain not happy to work in the city), and then one needs to make sure they get out of the project, and the city whole of body, in a single piece with all arms and legs intact, healthy and alive. [I am reminded of the young fellow from Buffalo who worked for us in Manhattan and shortly after 9/11 had some sort of mental breakdown... as was evident from the patchwork mess he directed his crew to make of a flat roof project, and how he fled town to spend several months to ride around on a bicycle in what was for him a more sane Cambodian countryside and where he seemed happy to write us on the occasional e-mail to inform us that he was eating fried maggots for dinner. Who knows!]

Another variation is that outside of urban concentrations there is invariably the lonely and isolated stone or masonry building in the small town, often a bank, or a town hall, or courthouse that has been muddled and messed up with well meaning masonry fudges by the local masons who rightly know new brick or new block work, it is the new masonry that they are most often hired to perform, but that they have no practical training, experience or understanding of masonry restoration. In this case a restoration contractor can bring in experienced masonry restoration trades from the city, but as the city tends to have a higher cost of living, and higher wages, it becomes a competitive cost problem for the estimator to juggle against the lower wages and lower experience of the local rural trades.

It never helps if property owners do not know or do not care about appropriate methods of restoration repair and themselves have no clue as to what exactly is about to happen to their building – often irreversible damage through gross ignorance -- when the local mason, or the well meaning volunteer group patches over all the missing brick with a slurry of Portland cement, to make it harder, stronger and last longer. What they get is very durable with a longer lasting decay.

There is also pride of place or a natural desire to protect livelihood close to home. If Joe the Mason is your brother-in-law then why would you listen to Fred from Chicago? This conundrum of dislocation and ignorance of good restoration practice becomes more interesting if the masonry structure to be worked on is difficult to access, such as a lighthouse on a restricted access island. And not to forget out-of-town costs for accommodations, per diem, transportation and meal allowances. Think in terms of working on the moon or restoration of the face on Mars. Life support can be a problem.

Everyone does everything different than everyone else wherever you go to look. Just as there is a metabolic rate that occurs in the organic process of building up of traditional trades resources, and the differences between one geographic locality and another, there is also a disparity in the amount of hands-on ‘business knowledge’ one acquires in contracting histo presto work.

Most historic restoration work is undertaken by relatively small business concerns that can be as small as one sole trade’s practitioner up to larger organizations of several hundred employees, but even with the larger outfits they are many degrees smaller in scale and in business activity and accumulated business experience as say giants such as Bechtel or Halliburton. You will not find very many Harvard MBA graduates doing hands on work in historic restoration, leastways not if their drive is to earn money. In part this is conditioned by the manner in which small boutique construction businesses develop from bright idea with pick-up truck and shovel to larger entity but almost always remain connected to the leadership, sweat and inspiration of one or two key people.

The needs of the historic preservation industry itself, which can be very localized as we have expressed here, and the necessary fragmented knowledge of the trades skill sets for traditional work limits the degree to which projects can be reasonably managed in complexity, and limits the degree to which a company can develop an internal business structure able to interface within the environment of a market niche. The internal structure of a restoration business begins with a response to the needs of a local market, for the most part, rarely for a global market. If it does not respond to the needs of the local market, of any viable market then it will not continue to exist as a business.

There is a phenomenon in masonry construction that I know of as butter joints (I once heard them referred to as Coney Island joints, but I’m not sure what the speaker may have been smoking). These are extremely thin joints, often less than 1/8th of an inch in the horizontal or vertical. The industrial process of brick fabrication with metal molds and steam power in the 19th c resulted in compact brick with very clean dimensional tolerances and the practice of brickwork for a time took on the challenge of these close tolerances and the result was butter joints. Also a result was some very intricate corbelled work, molded work and complicated arches.

In general less exacting, less ornate brickwork tends to have joint widths of ¼” to 3/8” inch. In the business of repointing brickwork an industry has developed to cut and repoint these thicker joints that first began with cutting loose or deteriorated mortar out with chisel and hammer (sometimes pneumatic powered but not so early on before portable pneumatic power was widely available), a labor intensive process to use a hammer and chisel to be avoided if possible as it is costly in labor and can easily cause damage to the brick. For the most part due to the cost and the difficulty the cutting and repointing of mortar joints, as it is practiced today, was avoided. Then carborundum grinder blades came along and as long as the blades were thinner than the joint thickness they worked reasonably well, though the blades wore down in their diameter and needed to be replaced several times in a day. They required a good deal of fuss with labor expenditure to use them. Then 4” diameter diamond grinder blades came along that did not reduce in their diameter as they were used. Though they cost more than carborundum they worked longer and a laborer could go a few days without a need to stop to change them out. The drawback with diamond grinder blades is that they work too well, they cut through mortar as some used to say ‘like butter’ but they also cut through brick and stone and hands and fingers like it was butter. Thus, in unskilled and inexperienced hands, or with mechanics that don’t know or do not care, diamond grinder blades can be dangerous to historic fabric and to people.

We were doing a project on an old theater on 2nd Ave on precast concrete panels that consisted of white marble aggregate and a nice salmon colored mortar. With a bit of care it was not too difficult to match up patching materials and blend them in to make repairs. The task was to do a minimal amount of intervention, and to seal a few cracks here and there. Unfortunate for us the foreman (the one who was caught out on a penthouse terrace on his previous project at 1:00 am naked) was drunk in the shower one night at his hotel room in Jersey City, fell, broke his leg and was unable to work. Short a foreman on the project he suggested his buddy take over for him, with assurance that he would make sure his buddy understood the job at hand. I was not able to get over to the project to oversee the transition as quickly as would have been best, as when I arrived at the project the new foreman had instructed the crew to cut out all of the cracks they could find in the precast. There were a lot of them. It reminded me of snakes -- all over the wall. It was certainly a case of doing too much too quickly and it bore in on me the hard lesson that diamond grinder blades can work really really too well. There were already problems on the project, the shop steward was a meth head who told us that he had just finished up a prison gig for manslaughter, and after we made all those irreversible worms and destroyed the historic fabric the project went from unpleasant to total nightmare in very short order. After we were terminated and another subcontractor brought in a determination was made by the architect to put a coating over everything, a monolithic color. The character of the otherwise quite fine precast was lost.

For a while diamond grinder blades seemed to be universally taboo on historic work, but then in more enlightened circles it was discerned that not all restoration trades mechanics are created equal, not all of them are stupid idiots and that it was not the tool and the technology that caused the destruction, but the operator. In light of this knowledge some projects require that the mechanics prove out their understanding and competence to use diamond grinders.

A student in an academic program, a young well meaning person who had negligible trade experience but still an interest in hands-on devises a methodology for raking out and repointing of butter joints using a kitchen knife and wax paper. Their peer-reviewed article is published in a respected journal and then eventually filters along to be disseminated to mechanics in the field who are used to work with masonry, and have met up with some butter joints, and who find the proposed methodology and tools to not only be impractical in execution, but apt to cause an increase in significant damage to the brick masonry as well as laughter. In this example, and as it would be in most actual instances, damage to historic fabric is a result contrary to all desired standards and expectations.

But, going back to the need of a restoration contractor to have a business to satisfy a market need, and metabolic rates of learning -- there have never been chisels, carborundum blades, and not to date diamond blades, thin enough to handle cutting out of butter joints. Decades ago, before diamond grinder blades, I spent a day with a young graduate of an historic preservation program newly employed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission driving them around to look at early historic restoration work that we had done with our business. What they wanted to know was what experience we had with repointing butter joints. The answer at the time was an uncomfortable, “None.” With the qualification that if given the opportunity we were willing to invest in learning and training of a workforce to do the work, but only if there were a need for it and that we would be paid for the work and not do it as a charity for a non-profit or a demonstration for academic purposes. At that time if they could have found anyone with experience in repointing of butter joints it would have been remarkable and it was my impression that they should be happy that they had at least found someone interested to do it in a good way.

But it also leads to how theoretical expectations can be disconnected from what it is possible to accomplish when working with materials, technology and trades. Nowadays there are new tools and technologies, and understanding of historic building materials, that make cutting of butter joints less of a headache and there are people and contractors with experience, if you can find them.

There are a number of ways to structure a contract for work, lump sum, design build, time and materials and as many variations as people seem to be capable to imagine and agree upon. In my experience in the New York environment the majority of work is contracted on a lump sum basis and one would never think to do it otherwise. It is the expectation of the market that the contractor will provide a fixed cost for the work and to do this regardless of how complicated or tenuously experimental and open-ended the work is (remember the butter joints never before dealt with).  In historic work there is often a venture into unknown but deceptively familiar territory.

There is the straightforward unknown that one can try to anticipate in an estimate. In the composite patch and repair of delaminated brownstone a difficulty is that one can never tell by looking at a façade, particularly when only able to look from the sidewalk, just how far back the stone will need to be removed before sound stone is encountered. A greater depth increases not only the labor to remove, and replace, but the composite patch materials are relatively expensive and over a large area an extra one inch of removal over the area of a townhouse façade can be quite costly in labor and materials. A sensible approach to reduce risk on the part of the contractor would be to go at this on a time and material basis, but in the city it rarely is agreed to by the property owner as they worry that they will be cheated, as they often are. People in the city may also learn to distrust each other faster than for people who live and do business in the country. To do work on a time and material basis requires a level of trust. A similar problem to the brownstone is in terra cotta repairs where visual inspection from the ground simply is not adequate to assess quantities of work needed until one is fully engaged in the work. The tendency is in these open-ended cases when an estimate or negotiation is short on adequate cost, to either cheat, pray for the best, or to over compensate in costing the work.

Another factor is that in histo presto work there is invariably an amalgamation of a whole grouping of needs that require different approaches, different sub-trades, and quite often these projects are wrapped in an RFP without the originating designer having any clue how complicated they have packaged the work. I would say in 80% of projects there is always one small task that the estimator has never encountered or experienced and subsequently has absolutely no rational clue how to cost out.

An associate based in Providence, RI, as well as a painter in Philly (now since retired to WV), does all of their work on a time and material basis and when you ask them for a lump sum, fixed cost, they are flustered and not prepared to think of their estimates in a manner to accommodate higher levels of risk in that they could be wrong. This difference of approach is not a bad thing in any manner, but it is a problem when one is not prepared in assembling a bid to realize just how differently everyone approaches costing of their work. The bid process generally runs to a deadline, a due-by date, and when time is short one does not want to have to backtrack and try to understand if the costs provided actually cover all of the described work, or leave a loophole that could later be costly, and more so costly in a crisis because not anticipated anyone at all.

A useful model by which to visualize these differences of metabolic rate is in the concept of pace layering.

I credit Stewart Brand in a keynote presentation at a conference in Chicago for the Association for Preservation Technology International for introducing pace layering to an audience of the historic preservation industry. Pace layering can be visualized as a set of concentric rings, like layers of an onion or planets revolving around the sun.

The concept is that there are slow moving communicators on the interior layer, and fast moving communicators on the outer layers – everyone co-existing in real time in the same world and on the same planet. Just some folks are slower moving and some are faster. Again we get back to that metabolic rate. Again we get back to, Do you live fast or do you lives slow?

In the center circle we may have equivalents of social communication through stone tablets and banging on drums. The stone tablets are difficult to carry around, they keep breaking, the pagans had been using clay tablets before this but the records kept melting in the rain. They went to stone, for the really valuable information, but it took much longer to record. By necessity the difficulty of the media itself confined one to recording only the most essential information, like the Mayan recording of the end of human civilization in the year 2012, and not a lot of vague and ephemeral twitter. The banging of drums reach as far as the sound will carry, similar to the messages sent out at noon or in an emergency call by our volunteer fire houses where the message is local. It is neighbor talking across the fence at the edge of the yard to neighbor about the efficacy of woodstoves vs. pellet stoves or the ambient nature of fireplaces. It is information that moves across the landscape slowly.

Then we have the printing press, people that read, books, newspapers, telephones and television, the internet.

In the outer circles we have a rapidity of distribution and process of information that is fast and moving information around between widely disparate groups of people, all of whom get to digest, or block off the stream. But this speed of information occurs in a world where the participant can be moving real slow or real fast at other times and on other layers, a day on the computer and a day in a rowboat without cell phone a day on the cell phone in a row boat on the internet. Or fast moving people can stop, get out of their high gear and talk to a slow moving person, go visit someone dying in the hospital. Or we can have the wheelbarrow operator talking on his bluetooth earbud to his portfolio broker while he moves we t concrete.

Information comes at us like sound to the ear, though we can shut our eyes, rarely are we able to shut our ears, and it is like this with information, once it hits us we have no recourse but to process it into our thinking. We may attempt to shut it off, but truly once something is known to us, as we can ask Eve and Adam who knowingly ate apples off the Tree of Knowledge; it is really really hard to put what we come to know back into a box of ignorance. We need in some ways to know what we know and let it be at that, we need to be able to go with the flow of our not knowing and our knowing in an indeterminate world.

One manner by which to deal with an influx of too much information, to the supernormal stimulation of FAST media is to play dumb, be dumb, and embrace the dumbness in ourselves. Or, as one business acquaintance says, “Put it in another room and shut the door, turn the key, voila!” Or we can step off the grid, step back from the flow, get out of the stream of information, stop watching television, don’t read newspapers and stay off the computer. But to play dumb in an estimate is to ignore the risk of losing against reality.

Though these days we can hook a text up to a computer that will cut letters into a slab of stone as if we were to push PRINT on our word processor the stone remains heavy to move around, as a stone is a stone. As to the drums we can do a video and embed it into our website, now suddenly the local alarm is made global, if there is anyone inclined to listen. But the post-Luddite population, off the grid, will remain as much as they can possibly manage to remain out of range of the barrage of communication. If the stone gets to them it will be by mule, if the drum sounds for them it will be by Jessie who makes a call to them for dinner. And for whom the bell tolls, though I had intentionally left bells out of this up to now.

The metaphoric construct of concentric circles has a few other interesting potentials besides slow and fast moving communicators tied or not tied to information streams. Stewart intimates that the circles turn in one world, like a prayer wheel or the tire on a car, or the device of the story here is as the black arm of a large clock. That there is a relative point of the present, the here and now, at which all existing, living communicators are on this planet earth in one time, today, now and that though the communicators on the most outer circles are covering more territory in any one day than those slower moving on the interior, everyone is in the same world, be here now, and most of everyone is hearing something, if it even only be a bird outside at the feeder that cheerily sings in the morning sun. There is no science fiction to this, while you are here doing this, reading this, someone is somewhere else, a whole lot of someone else’s, doing something entirely different than what you are doing now reading this sentence. I sip from a cold cup of coffee as we speak.

That blacksmith that we were looking for earlier to do the forge welding in Harlem is on the planet today. The masonry mechanic that we need to cut and repoint mortar joints on the sandstone of lighthouse this week is hanging off of the side of a building on West 43rd Street. The timber framer, having heard all of this stuff several times before is waiting patiently to read to the end of this paragraph.

Another aspect of this metaphor of concentric circles is the communication relationship between the rings of circles. One might presume that on the inner circles, where information is moving slowly, that those on the outer circle look like speedy ghosts whizzing past. They do, actually, look highly irrelevant if your sole interest and immediate focus in life is rearranging stones in a dry wall. Some would say, “Oh, that really fast whizzing past us person has poor timing.” From the outer rims of the wheel those on the interior look like they are frozen in space, statues of stone, as well they are in a relative manner stuck there not moving very quickly, like lizards with cold blood not able to get their scales up until the sun comes warm onto the rocks.

Often there are discussions on the economic disparity between those who can afford a computer and broadband and those who live off the grid, have no computer, and have no connection. An even larger issue in this disparity is not the economics but the exponential contrast in metabolic rate in the accumulation, processing and distribution of information, in short, how quickly and efficiently that we learn.

So one day we have this slow communicating person who bravely puts their arm out into the fast stream and suddenly gets it ripped off. Bloody unfortunate mess that is. Or, let us say, to jump onto a fast moving train you need to run along side of it a bit and jump. If you miss, well, good luck.

Or a person on the outermost ring finds a stone, writes on it with a magic marker, then throws it in to the inside core, I mean, we are all on the same field so why not throw things back and forth? It is like the e-mails that we get with the signature that advises us to think about what we are doing to the environment before we print out the e-mail. In other words, keep moving fast, don’t stop, don’t take what I tell you and carve a stone out of it. Besides, give me fifteen minutes and I will probably say something else to contradict myself.

My current business signature advises everyone to think about the environment before reading the e-mail that I have sent them. I strategically place my signature, as with every signature, at the end of the e-mail where most readers will not become aware of the environmental impact of the message until after they have read the body of the e-mail. Too bad.

You will never know the value of information that you receive until you have received it and had an opportunity to process it. Good to go to sleep. Sometimes you will know immediately the potential value of information, other times it can take a long time for a small piece of information to reveal value. In the majority of cases information may not be of any value to you ever. But in essence, all raw information for an histo pesto estimator is good information.

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