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Amish for a Day: The Psychological Underpinnings of Barn Raisings, or Why the Grass is Always Greener at the Other Guy’s Home Renovation Project


Photo credit: cindy47452 via photopin cc

Photo credit: cindy47452 via photopin cc

Pssst, c’mhere. I got a secret to tell you. Closer — it’s a dirty little secret…

Think back to that soul-inspiring Amish barn raising you once saw in a TV program or a Hollywood movie / documentary. The archaic clothing and frilly bonnets, the funny beards, the dust motes sparkling in the camera lens as children chased butterflies across the job site. I know you can picture it. And no doubt you’re smiling as you think about it, ruminating on how this is the way societies should work.  Everybody coming together selflessly for the common good of the community.

The problem is, it’s all a big fat lie.

OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. But the truth is, even though Amish men would no doubt be “shunned” if they didn’t show up to help erect the barn (or school, or church), they ultimately — or at least unconsciously — do so, I would argue, for reasons far less selfless than you might expect. The truth is, spending a day helping out on your buddy’s project (or barn) means a day set free from your own (probably) hopelessly stalled home maintenance or DIY-project(s), to say nothing of it being a welcome hiatus from that insatiable, hydra-headed domestic monster, the loathsome “Honey Do” list. Such an opportunity for release is a strong drug. Trust me.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to folks that one of the main reasons why people choose to become architects is because they love to build things. I’m no exception. And being an architect certainly gives me something of leg up when it comes to DIY and renovation projects around the house. When all is said and done, there’s very few residential-scale construction projects I can’t tackle myself — with the exception of seamfilling drywall which, to do well, I consider something of a magical art form.

But the problem with being an architect is that I also have such well-honed visualization skills — that is, I know exactly what the finished project will look like in my mind’s eye. Why is this a problem you ask? Well, it’s like this: after I’ve completely torn apart the built-in book shelf / entertainment centre in the basement to re-build a new cupboard unit for the flat screen TV we purchased last fall (mostly as an excuse to try out my new Kreg Jig Junior pocket fastening system— — which I recently discovered on YouTube), and have expended all my initial first-day enthusiasm on the project, I’m already looking at the hole left in the wall and seeing a bright, shiny, newly-completed finish carpentry project.

All my wife sees, unfortunately, is, well, reality: lumber and saw dust strewn across the family room, a chop saw stored in the hallway, a panoply of miscellaneous tools underfoot and a veritable obstacle course of electrical / internet / co-ax cords snaking across the floor to service the TV, XBox, cable converter and Apple TV module, all of which now perch precariously on the coffee table about four feet away from us as we sit on the chesterfield to watch something. (My 14-year old son, of course, is in Nirvana — when he plays video games these days, it’s almost like he’s actually in the TV given how close to it he’s sitting).

Sure, I may trip over my nail gun every now and then as I walk through the room, or drive the head of the crowbar into the soft underside of my foot on occasion trying to step around the detritus, but once I get started on a project, as far as I’m concerned it’s pretty much done — ‘cuz, after all, I can see it done in my head. But actually completing the project? Well, that’s just a time thing. What’s the rush?

Helping friends work on their projects / raise their barns, though? Well, that’s a whole different story. Now you get to be the hero instead of the villain.

First crack at the “fun” stuff. Perhaps the best thing about helping a buddy with his or her construction or renovation project — especially if building is generally something you like doing anyway — is that you typically don’t get stuck doing the crappy jobs. The unwritten rule is that since you’re doing them a favour, you get first crack at the plumb jobs. Painting? You get to roll; they have to do all the cutting in. Putting up drywall on the ceiling? You get to screw the drywall to the strapping; they have to heft it overhead and try to hold it place. Flooring? You get to install all the easy, long runs while they have to cut and fit all the end pieces. Imagine getting to work all day at something you enjoy without having to do any of the tedious bits. Sweet!

There’s usually food — and beer — involved. Thankfully, when your spend the better part of you day volunteering your labour at a friend’s house, they take great pains to make sure you don’t go hungry. And there’s usually cold beer involved as well. This is not always the case when you’re at home, working in isolation on your own projects.

Great opportunity to develop new skills. Say you want to try to tile your bathroom on your own, or build a new deck, but you’re a little unsure if you can manage it? Assisting a buddy do this at his (or her) place goes a long way in helping you develop the skills and confidence  you need to try to tackle the same job at your own house. (Translation: it’s less expensive to make first-timer mistakes on somebody’s else’s project than on your own). Plus there’s usually food and beer involved at your buddy’s place.

You don’t have to make any of the hard choices. When you’re doing your own home reno or DIY projects, you have to make all the hard choices yourself. Can I afford the the extra $329 to upgrade to the nicer, pre-finished baseboards? How do I install that additional circuit for the new microwave even though my panel is already maxed out and the breaker would end up tripping every time I tried to defrost food and blow dry my hair at the same time? When you’re at your buddy’s place however, even though they’re allowed to ask you what you think about a particular dilemma, they have to make all the hard decisions themselves — plus they have to make these decisions in a timely manner lest you spend all your available volunteer time with them simply staring at the issue and trying to figure it out. (Buddy: “Um, when I put that new partition wall in it wasn’t quite 90 degrees to the existing wall which means the corner we’re working on now isn’t going to be square which may throw off the installation of my t-bar ceiling. Since the wall’s only 8’ long and it isn’t drywalled yet, d’ya think we should we take it out and try to re-set it properly before going any further?” You: “Whatever you like, it’s your show. Got any more beer?”)

No prep or clean-up required. Similar to Item #1, when you’re working at a buddy’s place, you don’t have to worry about getting the “site” ready for what needs to be done, or cleaning up after yourself at the end of the day. It’s expected that since you’re the “help-er” on the project, the “help-ee” will have things all ready for business when you arrive. Furniture will be moved out of the way, tools will be set up, material will be arrayed where easily accessible — you can hit the ground running. Likewise, at the end of your “shift”, when the work is finished but the site is now a complete disaster, you’re free to leave without any sense of guilt whatsoever. “Don’t worry about that,” they’ll gratefully inform you as you’re unfastening your tool belt for the day, “We’ll clean all that up later.” This is, indeed, in stark contrast to your own projects where you’re responsible for absolutely E-V-E-RY-T-H-I-N-G and, if you’re anything like me, actually seem to spend the bulk of your productive time either setting up prior to the start of the project or cleaning up after you’re done.

The right tools and material. Because your buddies will typically want to leverage the limited amount of time you have available to help them out, they’ll usually make sure to have the right tools on hand to make the job run smoothly, as well as sufficient construction material laying around to complete the project at hand so that you don’t have to waste time running out to the Home Depot to re-stock. This can be an especial real treat for a guy like me who can easily waste a couple of hours on my own projects looking for a three foot length of 2” x 4” I thought I had in the shed so I don’t have to go to town and buy a full eight footer, or piss away an entire morning trying to invent a track system to cut sheet goods with my circular saw so I don’t have to waste 15 minutes trying to excavate my table saw from the furnace room.

Have I mentioned the food and beer?