“You Can't Hammer a Nail Over the Internet”

The title of this post is directly derived from a quote from one of my favorite books, “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford.  In this book, Crawford decries the shift in our culture away from working with our hands.  High schools and other institutions are preparing the next generation of our society to be information workers, leaving the manufacturing and building to others generally outside of our borders.

I picked up this book about 1 year into my journey with bikes in 2009.  At the time, I didn’t know what drew me away from my well-paid job as an architect into the (less paid)  world of grease and ball bearings.  Although I have wanted to be an architect since I was very young, I found the modern interpretation of the profession somewhat tedious.  In graduate school, I had the good fortune to study at the premier “hands-on” architecture school in the country (The University of Kansas) under Professor Dan Rockhill. This program taught me how to weld, pour concrete and tie re-bar.  Upon graduation in 1996 , I was thrust into a world of CAD and stacks of papers that had to be reviewed.  Really?  Was this it?

In 2008, I had a bike stolen.  I had some great friends convince me to build my own replacement.  Initially,I had no real desire to do so.  I had been a bike messenger in NYC in the wild late-80’s, but was never really enamoured with the culture. Going through the process of researching and parts acquisition for my “new” bike set something off in me. Most architects have some sort of left brain/right brain reasons for becoming an architect.  My reasons were similar..enjoying math and technology as well as many artistic pursuits.  Whereas actual architecture took too long, I subconsciously found that working on bikes was everything I loved about architecture, in a smaller timeframe. There was the amazing beauty of these objects, as well as the technical specs of the various components.

I could work on a project and affect someone’s life in the span of hours, not years.  I was impacting people’s fitness, traffic, pollution in real-time.

Looking back on it now, I can see what was going on in my brain.  It wasn't an active rejection of architecture (heck, I am still employed as an architect)..  it was a search for something that resembled what I loved about architecture, but that made more sense to me. As an architect, essentially an information worker, my job could be outsourced to a cheaper information worker with a computer and a high-speed internet connection pretty easily.  In fact, thats whats been happening in architecture these last few years.  However, when you work with your hands, no one can ever take that away.  Crawford’s book argues that those who work with their hands have the most control over their destiny.  After living it firsthand, I tend to agree.

In the end, “Soulcraft” wasn’t life changing for me as much as it was life affirming.  I was able to finally understand what was drawing me into this world of Sheldon Brown (look him up now).  I was able to tell my wife,”here’s the reason there are bike parts strewn around the house”.  Unamused after 2 years of my backyard shop, we decided to open a storefront, which we quickly outgrew and moved into a bigger space. What “Soulcraft”  did teach me is that the value in the work that we do with our hands is priceless.  In my shop, we discount various items for various groups, etc.  However, I NEVER discount our labor rate.  Our labor is the reason we exist.  The internet sells parts cheaper than I do, but what the internet can’t do is hammer a nail.

My life now consists of being lucky enough to pursue the things I love.  In addition to a beautiful family, including 2 kids, I am employed at HOK as an architect, teach architecture at the Pratt Institute and recently founded a non-for-profit that brings the sport of lacrosse to the inner city kids of Brooklyn (Brooklyn Battery Lacrosse Club)