Contemporary builders have a set procedure for doing business. It may prove expedient and trustworthy to some and expensive and cumbersome to others. Generally it reflects the way in which we run our society in a caste system: white collar – blue collar.

The owner first contracts an architect to design a house and oversee its construction. Architects are highly skilled technicians who understand both stress factors and aesthetic beauty, a necessary combination. This usually costs about 10% of the total expenditure. The architect is strictly a white-collar worker and is never expected to pick up a hammer but does have, usually, exclusive control over the construction and the contractor.

A contractor is now engaged to perform the actual building and subcontracting necessary for completion of the house. Contractors are also strictly white-collar workers, and in many cases never lift a hammer either, but simply conduct the business necessary to administrate the contracts and hustle more contracts. He also gets paid very well for what he does, and probably adds 20% to the expense of the house.

The contractor is by all reckoning strictly a business man. But who builds the house, who actually hammers the nails, who actually joins the wood together and erects the structure? It’s not the architect; it’s not the contractor, or even the foreman, if there is one; it’s the carpenter, the least paid, but the most necessary link in the whole operation.

We find it important in our society to divide ourselves into classes and we spend our money accordingly. The luxury of having an architect and contractor is going to become an expensive relic of the past. The fact is that a master carpenter can design a house and negotiate a contract better, and cheaper than the architect and contractor. An architect who doesn’t have any practical experience working with wood can often make something more complex and expensive than is necessary. A contractor who does not actually work on the building himself has to hire labor — people who are working by the hour and are less concerned and less enthusiastic about their work as a result. The house will last longer and be better built by people who are personally involved in the design, responsibility and the craftsmanship.

Recently, I’ve been doing subcontract finish carpentry on a very large, very expensive house in Lake Forest. The architect would come around two or three times a week and complain about everything and demand that alot of the trim work, door jambs, and so forth, be changed. The contractor had to oblige and pay the labor to do it. The architect designed the house to have 1 x 2 yellow pine trim throughout. That is a very small stock of a very resinous wood and whenever it is cut, it will shrink and bend noticeably. If it was larger lumber or a less resinous wood, the degree of shrinkage and warp would be negligible. Thus, whenever we installed trim anywhere the next week there would be gaps in the joints and in many cases warpage out of line. All of the joints were then of course unacceptable and had to be replaced. This costs a great deal of money and frustration to all concerned.

The contractor had a business to run and several houses going up. Often decisions could not be made on the job because the contractor wasn’t there. This caused delays and cost money. When money got tight needed materials were sometimes weeks in arriving. More time and money. Eventually, the contractor had to declare bankruptcy, and leave the house unfinished, lay off the crew and force the subcontractors to file liens and claims to get their money, if they could get any at all.

My point is very simple. The more closely knit the operation, the more successful it will be, financially and structurally. There are small companies today that design, contract and build themselves. Giles Blunder and Dale Dixon located at Heartwood Realty in Carrboro are both architects who are also master carpenters. Sky High Silver Mine Co., Walker Hagan and Dean Debore (located at Oxbow, off 86) are a working partnership of architect-carpenter. Robert Roskind is a man who has built different homes in the area for nine years and not only designs and builds, but does plumbing and electrical work. All of these people represent a very healthy turning point in the building industry. When we can start to equate blue collar and white collar, mind and body in one person, one organization, we have achieved a better built house with the workers involved making more money for themselves and charging the owner less.