Inside JAS Design-Build Jul03

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Inside JAS Design-Build

The department (graciously, incredibly) set each of us up with an internship at a local firm for the first summer of our 3 year MArch grad program.  I think the idea is to give us experience doing actual day-to-day architecture in order to fill out our studio work.  Of the 25 of us, I would guess that I’m the only one using a Sawzall, Fein tool and nail gun as part of my internship.

I’m working at JAS Design-Build in Wallingford.  They’re a mid-sized firm with around 50 employees including carpenters, cabinet builders, admin and designers.  When you go to their website the first thing you see is three black and white images stacked along the left edge: Carhartt jackets hanging on a stud wall, a close-up of a steel clamp, and a man installing trim over an entryway.  The background shows an aged and splitting piece of wood.  This is as elegant an impression of the company as I can convey.  What I mean is, you don’t see a glossy rendering fading into a perfectly composed shot when you mouseover.  You don’t even see their work.  You see their tools, and this is how they show you who they are.

Second day on the job one of the carpenters told me a joke.  Why do architects go to hell?… because Jesus was a carpenter.  We were wrapping up a complete remodel on Queen Anne – a large Craftsman  with a sleek Ipe deck.  The deck was designed (not by JAS – although the interior of the house was) to have Ipe boards wrap down over the sides and form a skirt to the ground, creating a solid.  It was a very heavy, very masculine design, and it looked good.  The only problem was that the architect had drawn the stairs wrong.  He had spec’d the treads at 6” rather than the actual 5.5” for a 6” nominal board.  The carpenters had to redesign the rise and run of the stringer, as well as how it met the deck and the concrete edge below.  Hence the damnatory joke.

The next job was another large Craftsman on Capitol Hill.  The house had changed hands and, before moving in, the new homeowner decided to modernize the wiring, remodel the master bath, and fix all the other old house things.  My role was mostly demo: tearing out the old bathroom floor and drywall, cutting surgical openings in lathe-and-plaster walls for the electricians to insert their wires into.  It’s a nice change of pace from school.  There’s a magic in demo that probably gets lost if you do it every day.  Peeling back the finish layer and peering into the cavities of a house, you see the old ceramic insulators, cloth wire, water stains, sistered joists, dead wasps, and disconcertingly large holes cut through structural members; you see what was once an exterior porch reimagined as a bathroom, now beginning its third iteration; what was a doorway become a closet, hidden behind drywall.

I’m learning that there is a world of interpretation between what exports from CAD and what gets photographed as the finished product.  I think it will be valuable knowledge someday, to know what it really means to ask someone to build something from a drawing.  Carpenters are focused on the details because they see the myriad issues that arise when you try to actually build something.  Architects have a more holistic vision for the project, but inevitably overlook or don’t anticipate some details.  This is the argument for design-build, then: to have it all under one roof – to make communication more direct, change orders easier, and to keep decisions made in the field consistent with themes established in the office.  I’m sure that having carpentry experience will help me anticipate some of the issues that will arise beforehand, and I hope to be an architect who stands in the good graces of carpenters.

Written by Ross Lambert, MArch Candidate 2014.

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