Young Architects Should Work in Construction

If I have one regret during my education (between the ages of 18 – 24) is that I never worked on a construction site. Once I graduated from college, I went straight to work in an architectural office, drawing up all sorts of stuff that I had literally never seen before in my life. I managed to get along but I was acutely aware of my lack of practical knowledge and I have been trying to make up for it over the last 20+ years.

It’s really difficult to get firsthand experience on a construction job site once you have a different 8am-6pm job. It wasn’t until I bought my first house did I roll up my sleeves and start to get my hands dirty. My wife Michelle had a job where she traveled for work 5 days a week, and since I am not really a “go hang out at the bar” type of guy, I spent my evenings at home making repairs on my 1920’s era house. I didn’t really know any best practices, but I had been drawing details for awhile and I kind of knew some stuff … but knowing and doing are two really different things.

living room with concrete floor 03

What got me thinking about this was that I spent my Sunday getting the front room in my house ready for some concrete renovation work. We bought this house right at a year ago and I have been making minor cosmetic changes week to week. Most of the time it’s been fairly minor – I’ve rewired a bunch of light fixtures, replaced a bunch more, patched holes in sheet rock, rehung cabinet doors, re-hung gutters – that sort of thing. Some of the slightly more aggressive work has included fixing the pool (saw cut out some cracks in our pool, install new tile and put a new coat of plaster down) but now it’s time to tackle another project – polishing the concrete floors in my front living room.

I’m not going to be doing the grinding myself – even though I would like to try. This is more about the equipment needed to do the job properly. I don’t have access to large format grinders and for a job this small, it wouldn’t be worth the cost to try and rent one with all the necessary grinders and abrasive pads/discs. No, I am taking care of all the prep work and I am hiring someone else to come in and give me a  Level 3 (semi-polished) finish.

What’s that?

A level 3 polish is achieved by going up to an 800-grit or higher diamond abrasive – in my case, I am taking it 1500 grit. This is a “shiny” finish (just short of “wet”) and you’ll start to see good light reflectivity. At a distance of 30 to 50 feet, the floor will clearly reflect side and overhead lighting.

living room with concrete floor

SoI spent my weekend pulling up carpet and pad, scraping the floor a bit, and removing the perimeter carpet tack strips. I can’t help but think that the guys putting in the tack strips got paid based on the number of nails they used to attach the strips to my floor.

living room fireplace with concrete floor

This house – my 6th since I’ve been married – was actually designed by an architect, but I only know this because I have a copy of the original drawings. The house has been victimized by terrible design decisions and even poorer construction execution over the years, and you can see for yourself that the current design motif is still entrenched in the 1980’s.

Yes, that square recessed light fixture is not aligned with the fireplace, you aren’t seeing things. Would you also like to know that the trim ring on those fixtures is brass? That have been poorly painted over with flat white ceiling paint?

living room with concrete floor

This is a large room – around 420 square feet.

living room with concrete floor

There is another great thing about this room – the light. We get really wonderful light during the day because of the large exposed windows, which make up the majority of the walls, face East and South, and we do not get direct sunlight into this room.

removing carpet

I went back through my old pictures and I could only find one that still showed the carpeting. I suppose it wasn’t that old, I pulled the carpet up to check on the quality of the slab work underneath to initially find out if I could grind the slab.

removing carpet tack strips

Tack strips.

This is the part that was the worst. Pulling the carpet up and hauling it off only represented about 15% of my time and effort. The rest was spent sitting on the floor, hammering in-between the nails that were used to set these tack strips. There were almost a 100′ linear of tack strips, and if I did the math right, that equates to about 300 nails. In my attempts to minimize a number of concrete icebergs that were attached to each nail I removed, I had to use my hammer and chisel on both sides of each nail.

work is hard on your back when you're old

This is about an hour into the process.

Why yes, that is a bar on the left-hand side of this photo! While I was removing tack strips, my wife removed all the stuff from this room as part of our “mask-off-the-house-from-concrete-dust”. We learned this lesson the hard way from the last house we lived in and all the floors were concrete.  You can read this (Refinishing Concrete Floors) and see some photos of just how bad the concrete dust was.

discarded carpet tack strips

This is a look at just some of those hateful carpet tack strips. So. Many. Nails!!!

I like to think I am pretty handy around the house and more times than not, if I don’t take on a home renovation project, it’s either lack of resources ($$$). As I sat on the floor of my front room, hour after hour hammering and chiseling, I couldn’t help but think how working on my own houses over the years has fundamentally shaped how I think as an architect when I walk onto a job site.  I can’t help but have a deeper appreciation for the craftsmanship I am observing (hopefully observing …) and a better understanding of the effort it takes to create the desired result.

If you are a young architect or plan on becoming an architect one day, I think the best advice I can give you is to find your way onto a construction site – even if that construction site is your own.

Bob signature FAIA