Thursday, August 18, 2011

Not Without Blemish

March 5, 2011 / August 5, 2011

That's the starting date and completion date of the stone wall. It was finished five months to the day after the first chunk of granite was laid. Below is one of the first pictures I took of the wall.

Here it is now.

From the courtyard side:

(The "pockets" or recesses left on this end of the stone wall are where the courtyard roof beams and joists will rest.)

I have been haunted by halves of inches of late. The last two brick columns to be completed (the two in the foreground of the photo above), were supposed to be aligned with the columns on the other side of the wall. They are off by about two inches, which I noticed without measuring. So I measured all the other column spacings in this line to find the error, but everything checked out with my plans. I told the mason, and he measured every column in the courtyard and couldn't find the problem. Is there a hiccup in the space-time continuum on my site?

The mason suggested that one of the concrete slabs is out of square. But the slab measurements also seem to be correct. We left the site mystified that day. The next evening I measured every column spacing; I noticed a difference of about a half inch between the spacings of columns on the back side of the courtyard and those on the front. Those three or four half inches seem to have added up to the two-inch discrepancy showing up in the last two columns. The mason offered to redo a few columns if I thought it would help. I think I'll take him up on it. The patterns I designed for the courtyard floor will not line up with the columns as they are.

Another half-inch error is not so "easy" to resolve. Installation of all the steel columns was completed this week. My framing contractor had marked their locations on the floor slab with chalk lines, based on my plan dimensions. Then the steel installer stood each column in place, marked the four bolt holes on the slab, drilled the holes, set the column back up, and bolted them down with expansion anchors. Except for the Great Room, these columns are the structural support for the whole house.

You may recall that these are the 22 columns I hauled to Raleigh and back in a failed attempt by two companies to electroplate them with zinc. After that they hung out at the Wilmington welding shop for a few weeks waiting to be shipped to Charlotte to be "hot dipped galvanized" with zinc. Several weeks after that I got a call from the welding shop saying my columns were finally back in Wilmington and ready to be delivered and installed.

I stopped by the site on my way home from work after the first day of installation. About a third of the columns had been bolted into the slab. Then I saw the half-inch problem. The column baseplates along the back wall of the house were about an inch away from the brick edge:

This was supposed to be a half inch - basically a brick joint. I designed the baseplates to be the same size as the bricks to fit perfectly in these notches left in the brick edging. I also designed a floor detail to go over top of this plate to highlight this order. But with these columns out of place that detail will not work.

Wondering what had gone wrong I checked the marks for the baseplates at the opposite wall. I noticed that these marks would result in the baseplates sitting right against the brick edge. So, all the columns, at least in this portion of the house, are shifted a half inch from where they should be.

I'm not sure why this mistake was made - or that it would even be considered a mistake by the framer who made it: "The columns are lined up, spaced correctly from each other, and all fit on the foundation... so what's the problem? Besides, all these baseplates will be concealed under the floor anyway, right?" Wrong, mostly - though the steel of the plates will not show, a different kind of wood from the rest of the floor was planned to attach directly over it.

Later I realized that I should have made it clear to the framer what was most important to me in the way these columns get laid out - that the crucial thing is that they fit as perfectly as possible in these pockets formed just for them...  So I ended up just being angry at myself for not remembering that every phase of this project requires a special meeting with the workers to clarify what is unique about it.

Some of the columns are in fact in the right place. Here's a good example:

In a last ditch effort to fix the ones that are off I asked the installers if those columns could be moved a half an inch back. Uh, no, they can't, they said. You can't drill a 3/4 inch hole a half inch away from another 3/4 inch hole and put another wedge anchor in it. It will blow through and won't hold.

What do you do with a mistake that can't be repaired? Damage that can't be erased? You develop over it a beautiful scar. I find myself not wanting to cover up the mistake, to make it invisible in the finished house, but also not wanting to highlight it, to celebrate it, as if pretending it was intended, and good. There's an in-between that doesn't hide or highlight, but calmly acknowledges and extends "grace." In my best design thinking, the original (ideal) design doesn't ignore the issue and leave it gaping, naked for all to see, resenting the error forever; neither does it race to cover and make it look as though an error never occurred. Instead the ideal allows itself to flex into a gracious and elegant accommodation of the mistake. If the mistake leaves a gap in the floor, the floor boards forget their original length and extend into the gap, the extra length of those boards revealing that an unintentional gap has been covered. It is God making coats of skins to cover the sin-revealed nakedness of Adam and Eve. He didn't just magically take back their shame, or make them blind; instead he introduced a new design element that both covered their nakedness and served as a visible reminder that because of disobedience nakedness had become a shame.

I'm still imagining how to extend grace over the sin of this half-inch. But I have an idea. Also I'm imagining my preparation speech to the workers of the next big phase of construction, the wood framing - stud walls, girders, joists, nails, screws, bolts, braces, moisture barriers, flashing, windows, skylights. The framing contractor already told me he wants to do all this in three weeks. Maybe I need something like a house-building Sermon on the Mount. You have heard it said, "Git-R-Dun!" But I say unto you, if she ain't done right, she ain't really done.

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