Home & Garden

About the House: Women and Their Buildings

By Matt Cantor
Thursday October 23, 2008 - 10:22:00 AM

It’s a sad fact that women are significantly more likely to be overcharged at the auto-repair shop than their male counterparts. I remember reading these studies by consumer advocacy agencies in the 1970s. In the age of Hillary Clinton, this doesn’t seem right or fair but that’s the way it is. Men have been the initiates to the secret information of spark plugs and tire rotation for much of the last century while women have struggled to gain a place at the bull-session in which the arcane knowledge was shared. It is clear that this has extended to the building trades as anyone with eyes can tell you. Even in my profession of building inspection, a look around the room rarely reveals more than about 5 percent women. 

Though I am convinced that women are quite capable of the full range of construction skills from architecture right down to framing walls and digging out foundations, the society has not done its due diligence and provided girls and women with the same opportunities as their male counterparts to learn about the built environment and experience, hands-on, the various tasks that turn unarmed homeowners into full-armed ones. To tell the truth, this skill-set is growing increasing faint in the male as well, so perhaps its time for women to pick up and carry this mantle. 

Not that the homeowner or renter necessarily needs to do their own plumbing or electrical wiring but, having done a trade or two and knowing a bit about how houses work (or fall apart) one is far better equipped to make decisions, budget and negotiate with contractors. 

I have over the years met a number of women who for one reason or other were now finding themselves in the situation in which the men who had taken point on these issues were now gone. Some to the grave, others to infirmity (or to a husband-shaped chair and matching television) and still others to divorce or separation. 

So for those who meet any of these criteria, I offer some general advice on dealing with contractors, what you can do yourself and what to focus on (notice that I didn’t say worry about. That’s the first piece of advice. Don’t worry.) 

First, and this is for the men to hear as well, there is nothing inherently male about construction, power-tools or architecture. On the last point, I think Julia Morgan, one of our greatest architects proves the point all by herself. To the matter of tools and construction, this is clearly a cultural issue and not one of innate capacity. While it may once have been true that construction required great physical strength (and as a rule men have more of the large muscle masses and prior to power-tools they were much needed) it is far less true today and where it IS true, the boss can still be a woman and the grunts, males (as the natural order demands). 

So there is nothing women cannot do with regards to the care and feeding of the home except to study and take on the task (if you have not already done so). A good book or two on home maintenance is not a bad place to start. One reasonable volume is the Reader’s Digest New Fix-It-Yourself Manual: How to Repair, Clean, and Maintain Anything and Everything In and Around Your Home. A women’s perspective can be found in Julie Stutsman & Stephanie Glakas-tenet’s Dare To Repair books (there are at least three of these).  

For understanding the framing of houses and some fundamental architecture, there is nothing I like better than Francis D.K. Ching’s book Construction Illustrated. It shows you exactly how houses are built and Frank Ching’s drawings are so well done that you feel as though you can see right through these buildings. Wiley Publishing just released a revised paperback this year.  

For a little local color, you might check out one of the plumbing books by our own Peter Hemp (e.g. Plumbing a House Tauton Press ‘94) 

Classes on home repair and construction are available at lots of local colleges (as well as our local Building Education Center) but I would contend that the building trades remained so male dominated because the learning of this kind of information requires some sort of guildship or residency, an intimate intensive where problems are tackled together. A classroom environment may be helpful but without real-world experience, it’s very hard to transmit precisely how decisions are made in the field and actions taken. Therefore I would suggest that those who wish to learn, either work with a tradesperson on their own home, or seek some form of employment, for a time, with someone well versed in their trade. 

Contractors are all over the map on how they feel about working with client and I feel their pain. It’s hard to be a boss to the boss. It’s also hard to teach while getting the job done. This is why much of the history of guildships involved traditions of subservience (sweeping the floor before you got to handle the saw). One had to earn the valuable time of the master. This may seem a little over the top today but there is, at least, a germ of reason embedded in this behavior. 

If you are paying a contractor by the hour and they’re interested in teaching, things will probably go well. If they are on a fixed bit, teaching you (even though you may intend to be helping) may be too defocusing or distracting for the right-brained carpenter. Going from left to right for hours may be too confusing and we all know that men don’t like to ask for directions, right? 

The truth is that it’s just a matter of who you work with but if you want to learn fix-it stuff or actual full-contact construction, there’s nothing like doing with someone who knows a lot more than you do.  

Whether you choose to learn the trades or not, take no bull. Demand (this can be done without vehemence) to have details explained to you right down the smallest detail. Be clear with your hired help that you want to be as involved as possible and make as many decisions as you can, as the client, make.  

Sometime a seat is not offered at the table, but my policy (and here I will end my rant) is to step up to the table, pull one out, smile, and join in. In this way, we can all, one day at the time, change the world.