Making Sausage... and Buildings

Sausage Making: An unpleasant process, especially one that is hidden from public view that is used to produce a widely consumed product: lots of people like sausage, but few would enjoy watching leftover animal parts ground up to make it. (

Construction, too, is inherently messy. Like surgery, blood flows from the first cut. It isn’t pretty. There are ways to make it neater but the healing doesn’t start until the last coat of paint goes on. Building begins with excavation. That initial incision, nowadays encircled by erosion and sedimentation fences and hay bales to control the runoff is just the beginning of the process. There probably never will be a minimally invasive option for construction.

The messiness remains until just days before the grand opening or the occupants move in. There is an amazing transformation that occurs in the latter stages of a project: similar to when the chrysalis comes off the caterpillar and the butterfly is revealed. Within days the job goes from construction site to home, office, or classroom.

The moment of the transition is as elusive as the green flash of a tropical sunset but equally rewarding. After months or years of labor to get it right, contractor, architect, and owner can step back and see what they have created. Even if the client visits often during the months of construction, the architects and builders tend to view the site as their domain until the very end, usually when the art goes on the wall and personal mementos appear with the furniture. I imagine it is similar to the emotions a surrogate mother must feel after months of gestation and seeing her baby go to someone else.

The beautiful photographs of completed projects in the magazines don’t begin to reveal the work that went into a project. The incredible spaces, smooth lines, and fine finishes you see instantly, but those of us who were part of the creation see through those images with x-ray vision to the bones that had to be gotten right in order for the finished project to shine. Credit is due the builders, too. Many careful layout decisions must be made and their sequence of activity is crucial.

Since each building is both a prototype and the finished product we try to stay on top of the process. We take hundreds of photos as things proceed: to document the process, recording parts that will be concealed, and to confirm that specifications and drawings are faithfully followed. After construction these photos are of little value and forgotten. Nevertheless, for those of us who were involved in Construction Administration they summon up smiles or frowns as we recall satisfactions or heart-stopping moments when surprises occurred. Both are inevitable. Construction is a journey into the unknown despite the best intentions and superb working drawings.

Above are a few examples of the CA photos I have collected over the years, with the final result alongside. By the way I still like sausage.

After threading new support steel and a new elevator shaft up through 4 floors of the occupied Steele Chemistry Building at Dartmouth College we removed the roof to provide new mechanical attic space for the renovated labs below. The end result was worth it. Introductory chemistry students may not imagine what it took to create the modern labs they now enjoy.