Gimme Shelter

 An early fall chill lends urgency to the just after sunrise start.  A five person house framing crew stretches and climbs out of the crew cab pickup truck, which tows the tools and nails trailer.  The first floor deck sheathing had been laid down the day before, and first walls would be nailed in place before day’s end – on track to frame the 2,300 square foot colonial in three weeks with garage and farmer’s porch.

First out of the trailer is the generator and compressor; no temp power is yet available at the jobsite.  Next out, the carpenters deploy cords for the saws and hoses for the nail guns.  The truck from the lumberyard pulls in.  The driver releases the Moffet forklift from the back and begins to unload pre cut studs, plate stock, OSB sheathing and a few 2 x 10’s for headers according to the estimator’s take off and framing foreman’s review with the lumber salesperson.   The practiced driver spreads the materials about the foundation to limit the amount of grunt work by the carpenters to get the right product to its designated place in the structure.

Carpenters jump on the lumber driver with good natured  repartee; profanity goes back and forth along with bawdy inquiries about girlfriends, wives and the attractive woman two doors down in the house they finished a couple of months ago.  Almost no sentence and few phrases avoid the habitual “F” bomb as a verb, noun, exclamation, adjective, adverb or occasionally an emphatic two syllables in the middle of a word.   “Where are my f’ing pencils and hoodies?”  As the driver pulls away, the lead carpenter or foreman is already snapping chalk lines on the deck.  After cutting them to the right length, he tacks together top and bottom plates to mark them out for studs as a start to assemble one of the twenty or thirty walls that make up the first floor.  Worn plans are rolled out on a makeshift plywood table.

The rest of the crew carries studs to nail between the plates and begins to cut headers, jacks, cripples, window frame sills and all the rest.  There isn’t a lot of talk by this time; everyone knows what to do.  By 8:30 or 9, they are standing up the first walls, bracing them plumb and level.  As the sun gets higher, shirts come off.  Arms, chests and backs are well developed, not with gym muscles, but resilient strength that will go all day.   Everyone is tanned dark with calloused hands.   At around 10 or so, the “roach coach” bounces in with horn blaring and the crew drifts over for coffee and snacks.  Some of the guys buy their lunch for later, usually a plastic wrapped day old sandwich or steamed hot dog.  The joking banter starts up anew.  By the end of the day, the first floor walls will be ready for the second floor joists tomorrow.

So the process goes.  The foundation form workers, concrete trucks, tree cutters and site work equipment have already come and gone – the dirt movers will return later to finish the final grading, driveway and landscaping.  After the roof is on and the windows are in, the other subs show up sequentially scheduled by the contractor:  roofer, siding and exterior trim crew,  MEPs – mechanicals (heating, ventilation, etc), electricians, plumbers, then masons, insulation installers, sheet rockers, plasterers, finish carpenters, painters, flooring installers, cabinetry and countertop makers.  Some MEPs come to rough in, and others come to install the finishing plumbing, lighting, fixtures and cover plates after all the other crews have finished their work.   Carefully planned throughout the progression are the various permits, inspections and checklists along the way to comply with thick code books and engineering requirements.  Sometimes in a small company, the builder and his wife finish up to final clean and take the manufacturer’s stickers off the windows.

Many of the subs know each other from other jobs.  Most get along; some don’t, especially if their work is increased or complicated by other subs.  If the plumber gets out a Sawzall and attacks floor joists to put in their drains or the sheet rocker buries the electrical boxes, sometimes sparks fly literally or figuratively.  The contractor frequently plays the role of arbitrator in these disputes.

Dependent upon these job site jobs are thousands of hardworking lumberyard, window, door and appliance manufacturers, pipe makers, wire makers, cabinet makers, log sawyers, timber cutters, gypsum and copper miners, cabinet makers, lighting assemblers, supply houses, realtors and myriad others who benefit from this bedrock industry.  Without them, our economy will and has suffered grievous harm.

An efficient builder will turn over a typical new house of this size in 90 days from digging the foundation to bikes in the driveway.  Some of the big national builders can get occupancy permits in 70 days.  When a company puts up 30,000 houses a year, efficiency is at a premium.  A large, fully custom home can take a year or more.  Approvals for lots and subdivisions usually take several years with frequently contentious planning board and zoning variance hearings.  Deals are cut for “contributions” to the town such as sewage pumping stations or Little League fields.  Relationships for good or ill are forged with building inspectors.  Bonds are filed; roads are cut; land is donated to the towns for public use.  Acquisition, development and construction loans are a never ending ongoing struggle.  Creativity abounds.

As large as the big builders are like Pulte, Lennar and D.R. Horton, most new homes are still built by small entrepreneurial builders, who by their risk taking, will, intelligence, experience, persistence and courage turn raw land into someone’s dream and shelter from the storm.

On this Labor Day weekend, I salute the thousands of entrepreneurs, who work as architects, engineers, contractors and subcontractors; almost all are small businesses.  They claw a living out of the earth, providing jobs for many others and homes for families all across this country in every state and county. I have been in and around this business for almost forty years, and my admiration for these independent, skilled businessmen is undiminished.  I am proud to play a small role in this demanding enterprise.

The fruit of their work is a fundamental of human survival – shelter. An honorable, necessary and admirable group of skilled builders, artisans and sub contractors get up each workday morning in wind, numbing cold, snow or parching heat or steady drizzle to provide with great difficulty what is critical to our way of life.

And, yes, Mr. President, they did build it.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away  

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

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