Sunday, August 05, 2007

Tracy Kidder, House

A friend (thanks Hal) loaned me his copy of Tracy Kidder's House when I mentioned that we were planning a remodel. I think he intended me to take it as a cautionary tale of the hazards of underspecifying the design before beginning work, but I read it more for the interesting story of interpersonal (management) struggles and the details of design and construction.

Many years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine. Kidder is exceptionally good at showing what is going on when a group works together to build something that is bigger than any of them can manage on their own. There are always political struggles, but it is heartening to see everyone striving to overcome strained interpersonal relations to ensure that the house turns out the best it can.

House is about a new company formed by a small group of experienced carpenters (but inexperienced businessmen) building a house in Massachusetts for a young lawyer under the direction of an architect who is just starting his practice. The house won design awards for the architect, and the lawyer (according to Kidder's story) was happy with the house, but the builders didn't make much money for their effort. The story describes the process of building the house in a fair amount of detail, but the focus is always on negotiations about who will pay for changes, who should have foreseen their necessity, and what was agreed to up front. The builders would have been much happier with the outcome if they had understood better how to write an estimate that left them room for profit. As it was, they were constantly squeezed when the lawyer pushed back on the price of materials and asked for trade-offs to his advantage.

Most of the blame for the particular problems goes to the agreement to proceed with construction before the design was complete. This meant the builders couldn't proof the totality of the design, to ensure, for instance, that there was room for the landing of the grand staircase where the architect was envisioning it. Another acrimonious conflict involved the architect's grand vision for how the greek revival decorations would be built, but this mostly impacted the financial accounting and people's attitudes toward one another without affecting the finished house significantly.

Of course, my reading of all this is heavily influenced by the fact that my father is an architect, that I helped (a little; after the first I was mostly off at college during the construction) him build three different houses, and that I'm a software developer and development manager. I often say that one of the most important lessons for software developers to learn is how to get requirements from a customer. As Extreme Programming points out, the customer isn't in a position to actually say what she wants at the beginning of a project; the designer has to evoke the needs, and show how they might be filled in order to allow the customer to fill in the details that the designer isn't familiar with. XP teaches the developer to make the design visible as early as possible so the customer can react to the parts that work and those that aren't right. When building or remodeling, many parts are harder to change once in place, but there are still opportunities to improve and solidify the design as a project proceeds.

In our own remodel, we've been trying to explain to the contractor that we understand that he expects us to change our minds; we've left room in our budget to make changes as we see how things turn out. He doesn't seem to understand that from a different industry we could understand the kind of flexibility he has to leave himself. Maybe he deals with changes as part of an attitude of adaptiveness, rather than as an articulated understanding of how it affects planning and budgeting. He shows so much flexibility that it's hard at times to pin him down on anything. We did finally get a rough schedule of construction so we can coordinate on the things we have to specify and buy ourselves. (countertops, flooring, new stove, tub, sinks, finish details, etc.) We also have to plan for how and when we will vacate each part of the house, and when we'll have to be out of the house entirely.

House is very engaging. If you have any interest in how houses are put together, or how teams work, there is a lot of meat here. While all the parties try to be tough negotiators at key times, they all want to end up with a beautiful house. Kidder builds a beautiful story out of the process.

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