Thank God for plumbers

If you’ve ever had a plumber in your home to repair a sudden leak (and always on a weekend!), you may have sighed “Thank God for plumbers,” even while complaining about the hospital-sized bill. But I have more reasons than most to thank God for plumbers. Not because my home is full of leaky plumbing, but because I’m an architect, and without plumbers (and carpenters, and electricians, and tinsmiths), nothing I designed would ever get built.

I really do thank God for plumbers, along with all the other construction trades, because their work contributes so obviously to human flourishing, bringing into existence designs that I (or another designer) have imagined. In a sense, we model two sides of God’s creative work in the world, both the dreaming and the doing. Or are there three sides to this equation?

When sketches become a reality

In his book, No Home Like Place, Leonard Hjalmarson quotes Dorothy Sayers’ observation that creative work is inherently Trinitarian. Sayers claims that the designer’s ideal conception of a project resembles, in a way, God the Father; the work of making it is incarnational, like God the Son, and that the project’s aesthetic, interpretive or transformational power models God the Holy Spirit. If this rubric is helpful and accurate, it underscores the vital importance of craft workers to the flourishing of people everywhere.

As an architect who designs large buildings that (I hope) contribute to the flourishing of the communities where they are constructed, I am grateful for what we call “the trades,” those people, mostly men but increasingly also women, who physically assemble what I draw, who literally make my schemes and inventions a reality. Without their hard and sometimes dangerous work, I am merely a doodler of pretty pictures of buildings that never happened (which, by the way, an architect accumulates plenty of in a career).

The trades are vastly underappreciated in American society, as we have transitioned over the past century from an industrial economy to one that places a high value on intellectual skills and the education that precedes them. I shouldn’t have to point out that installing a complex plumbing riser (think of a tree made of variously-sized pipes) requires its own set of intellectual skills in addition to physical ones — they are just not usually the skills taught in four-year colleges. Good tradespeople are most certainly not dumb or uneducated. They are smart, sometimes startlingly so, but trained in a different manner than the post-secondary economy most upper-middle-class children are thoughtlessly pushed into.

Overlooking the hands that build our world

The greatest joy of an architect’s working life is opening day, when politicians cut the ribbon on a new building and congratulate themselves for having funded it, often failing to mention both the people who designed it (like me) and the hundreds of tradespeople who gave reality to the idea. The former oversight doesn’t bother me because the satisfaction of seeing my work in built form is so overwhelming. It is literally what I was created to do. But I try hard not to overlook the contributions of the tradespeople who put in place the bricks and sticks I imagined months or years before.

Because I often work on sports facilities, the good work of tradespeople is more obviously on display than in, say, an office building where most of what one sees falls into the category of “finishes.” In a stadium, there is usually exposed steelwork, raw concrete seating risers, and plumbing and electrical lines running everywhere. In these more naked structures, one can truly appreciate the work of a craftsperson, organizing dozens of conduits into a symphony (or at least a sonnet) of power.

And gathering a local scout troop for a “super flush” before the building opens helps to confirm that the plumbers’ work has also been done well. I have a preference for unpainted masonry both inside and outside my buildings, which puts pressure on the masons to provide straight joints and clean surfaces because no one is coming along later to cover it up. And the work of finish carpenters, the artisans who make the doors hang straight and the grain match when trim turns a corner, is a continual astonishment.

From the office to the field: Importance of trades

Tradespeople, like all people, aren’t perfect, and every project has its flaws and blemishes, some of which can be remedied, and some of which are forever. An architect needs to learn, early in their career, the difference between a concrete footing drawn as a lovely set of rectangles and the reality of wet concrete poured in a roughly rectangular hole in the ground. All construction is a better or worse approximation of the Platonic ideal in the architect’s mind. But having a proper understanding of human nature, construction tolerances, and the exigencies of time, money, and personnel that all projects are subject to helps the gap between theory and reality to remain tolerable. And on ribbon-cutting day, everyone celebrates the completed project, choosing to overlook the missing piece of trim or the painted-over lump of drywall mud.

I recently had the opportunity to tour one of my favorite design projects, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park (home of the Pirates), with a group of trades students and some more seasoned tradespersons as part of a student conference there called Jubilee. After the tour, the veterans described their pride in their work, their ability to provide for their families, and their sense of having contributed to the flourishing of Pittsburgh with an eloquence that moved and humbled me.

The momentary convergence of my design work with their skilled craftsmanship, which happens all too rarely in the compartmentalized world of construction, was a powerful moment of beauty and holiness that brings me great joy every time I think of it.

Hands that build our world

As you go about your day, notice the handiwork of men and women who maybe don’t work in an office, but create things just the same that contribute to the flourishing of our communities. When you see a beautiful building, think about the hands that laid the stones and the plumbers who make sure the structures function as they should. As Christians, we should practice seeing and acknowledging the good work around us in all its various forms as it reflects God and serves our neighbor.

Topics: Architecture, Blue Collar, Issues Facing Workers, Work

About the Author

David Greusel is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based architectural practice. While with other firms, David was the lead designer for Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a design professional, Greusel has more than 30 years of experience in every aspect of architectural practice, including management, marketing, design, and technical aspects of projects.