Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Neatness Saves Time, Even on a Job Site

By Matt Cantor
Friday April 28, 2006

I have slovenly tendencies. I know this about myself. I’m not proud of it, but let’s face facts: I like neatness, but it is, on most days, beyond my grasp. I also like to complain about those around me who do not keep things neat. Of course I never complain about my wife or kids and their messes, and if you think you’ve ever heard me shouting from next door, it must have been someone else or perhaps it was the game on TV. 

So when I say that neatness counts, you will take it as a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. If we can agree on the terms then I can probably offer a healthy dose of advice on the subject without going straight to hell. 

Neatness in construction is actually something I care a lot about and there are several reasons for my concern. Let’s start with speed. I have a friend who I’ve known for many years. His name is David and he worked with me on my house almost 20 years ago when we remodeled our place. 

David never seemed to be moving very fast. He would do things very methodically and carefully. He never came to a complete stop, although sometimes it appeared so. He would just move steadily through the entire day and at the end of that day there would be this enormous amount of work that he had done. 

Mostly, it just looked like a series of slow motion movements but the thing is that he never wasted any excessive movement and he was never tripping over himself. He also kept his work area very neat and well organized. 

He would stop and sweep up his area periodically so that he could see what he was doing. He would stack things not being used, off to one side. He would take a moment to close the tool box before he began to run the saw so that it wouldn’t become filled with sawdust and thus avoided another cleanup job that would later become necessary. That was Dave’s method. 

Steve used to work for me and he would often appear to be moving too fast for the eye to see, like some sort of magic act. But Steve was far less efficient than Dave. 

I recall an afternoon when Steve spent no less than a half hour looking for his hammer. I don’t think he found his hammer during the period but eventually took someone else’s and only found his later. He had a different style. 

When people take the time to set up their work area, to lay out the tools and to continually clean and re-organize, the work moves smoothly and comfortably. I have often said to myself in the course of a job that all I’m really doing is cleaning up and at the end of it, there’s a shelving unit or a set of kitchen cabinets. 

The installation is just a series of cleaning operations with a very small number of construction operations in between. In other words, if the focus remains on organization and continual cleaning of the area, the installation of a lamp housing or the building of a formwork becomes very much simplified and incidentally, much quicker. 

Looking for things takes a lot of time. So does physically negotiating a space that has become an obstacle course. Sawdust is slippery and piles of objects can make moving back and forth through the workspace a burdensome task for the already overloaded brain. 

We brilliant humans tend to think that we can do forty-seven things at once. While this may be true, none of us are able to do so at the efficiency level that we can when we attempt a much smaller number. 

Aside from speed, there is the issue of safety. I know for certain that if anyone ever did a quantitative scientific study of this phenomenon, that they would find that the worker in the messy jobsite incurs 73 percent more cuts and scrapes than his or her counterpart in the nice neat site. 

I’ve seen it and I’ve been there. It is much easier to trip over cords, piles of sawdust and sawn off blocks than it is to trip when walking across a freshly swept floor. It is also very hard to see where you are or what’s missing when there are 178 things in front of you. I find it much easier to note a problem with the work in a clean space than in a disorganized one where there’s so much visual “noise” that I can’t pick out the things that I need to be looking at. 

Also, when you stop and sweep the floor, you find the hammer (“Hey Steve, we found your hammer!”). You find the drill bit you dropped. You find a screw on the nice wooden floor before you grind it in. You can also find the nails, the wood and the other things that you need. There’s also something about breathing and slowing down and re-framing the project that occurs when you’re cleaning up. 

Lastly, if you’re working for Mrs. Jones, she might like it. I know for a fact that Mrs. Jones loves it when you clean up after yourself. She might not mind the coiled up cords, the table-saw or the compressor if the floor is nicely swept and the wood had been stacked in the corner. Also, Mrs. Jones is a little blind in her left eye and she might not trip and tear a ligament in her one good knee if the floor is nicely cleared when she drops by with brownies and decaf in the middle of the afternoon (She is so nice).  

Another tip I’d like to offer involves protecting surfaces (and then I’ll give it a rest). Before starting a job, my friend Tim the tiler starts by covering everything in the greater Bay Area with heavy paper. Painter’s tape is used to tape things together so that when it’s time to remove the paper, it won’t pull the paint off. 

This is the blue paper masking tape so often seen left on the windows of recent paint jobs. Tim neatly cuts this stuff around corners and toilets and then can proceed to make a mess and when the job is done, he just tears the tape away, rolls the stuff up and stuffs it in the garbage. Voila, it’s a thing of beauty. 

Many builders contain their work areas with plastic sheeting and can even put zippers into these barriers in the middle of rooms to contain dust. It take a few minutes and adds on some dollars but when this is done your DVD player isn’t filled with sheetrock dust. 

Neatness seems like it takes time and, well, yes it does, but it also saves time, prevents accidents and shows consideration for those with whom we work. So next time you’re working on the job for yourself or for Mrs. Jones, try to be 4 percent neater and see how if feels. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com..