Monday, July 18, 2011


The author hard at work in a different kind of office

In my affinity for all things old I have discovered a common thread: Most of the old things I like can also be described as substantial. They’re analog (i.e., non-digital). Maybe even traditional. Definitely physical; tangible. Since the world has become so virtual, I find myself longing for things that are real. Older cars, for instance. They don’t have bits of plastic and silicon in them. They’re 100% real. Somehow such a thing is more impressive to a man.

The quest for reality applies to a project I’ve been working on in my backyard, too. I used to be a part of a building company, see. It went under because we built an enormous Ishmael—that’s what I’m calling it—up in the Boise foothills in 2006-07. It’s still sitting empty and unfinished inside, waiting for a buyer. I don’t know who in their right mind would want to buy a 5,000 square foot log house in Robie Creek, but I do know about business failure (a post for another day). I also know a whole hell of a lot about how to build a house from footing to rafter, but in all that knowledge there’s precious little experience with the real old-school techniques. In other words, I know how to build with dimensional lumber, even logs, but not with bricks and mortar.

But the old is becoming new, at least to me. Hence my enthusiasm for my little backyard project. It all started when my wife’s dad popped over with a find from the Main Auction in Boise: an old fireplace insert. It was in good shape, but a little too ratty for an indoor install.

Now listen. I love my wife. She has vision. She didn’t know, setting out, how much work it would be to build what she wanted. When her imagination really got going though, and she started talking about an outdoor fireplace, the first thing I should have done was hit up the Costco for a family size pack of Motrin for the body aches that were coming for me. Instead I procrastinated until I broke ground, and the anti-inflammatory meds were an afterthought.

Anyway. I’m well into the middle of the beginning stages (!) of building a pretty nice little outdoor fireplace. I poured the slab, then started setting the cinder blocks that make the parapet around part of our little paver patio. That parapet is two blocks tall, and when the coping is finished, it’ll be a nice bench that ensconces our fireplace.

Building with bricks and mortar, though, is just another example of my quest to lay hold of something significant by mining history. I love, for instance, those massive heavy full color picture books at the library that feature architecture, whether it’s Roman arches or the Greek “golden section” (a ratio of 1 : 1.618), manifest in the Parthenon of Athens. Again, a post for another day. What fascinates me about building with bricks and mortar is that the tools and techniques really haven’t changed in several thousands of years. That’s quite unlike any other method of building that remains to us today. And I can’t help but feel, as I build, a distant but warm communion with the builders whose monumental works came (and sometimes went) before me.

Perspectives matter; they help to keep us anchored in what matters most. My little building project is a manifestation of the kind of real durability that lately I have been craving. When so few things last, it’s nice to know that I can create something that does.