Book Review: Making Things Right

A house in Oslo similar to the one described in the book. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad.

Ole Thorstensen is a carpenter in Norway who decided to combine his philosophy of work with a description of a small project in the book Making Things Right. The general idea has been done before – The Soul of a New Machine is one of the more famous examples – but it’s usually written by an outsider rather than a primary participant.

The project is the conversion of a loft – see below* for more about that word – attic in a multiple dwelling into usable space for the top-floor tenants. Since the attic was full of bracing for the peaked roof of the building, this involved moving structural members, so Thorstensen was working in part to a structural engineer’s design. He describes in some detail his plans for the work, his business concerns about fees, and his relations with his subcontractors, his suppliers, and his clients.

Ultimately, those details aren’t that important. The topic that Thorstensen obviously wanted to talk about was the meaning of work. In his role as a carpenter and business owner, he performs both manual labor and office work, and he leaves no doubt which of those he prefers. The technical problems of figuring out how best to temporarily support the roof while he changes its structure, and how to organize the logistics of materials movement in the small space of the attic, are solvable problems. They depend on brains and labor, both his and his co-workers. Such solutions depend on cooperation and often on compromise, two topics he returns to several times.

The way that Thorstensen works is suited to smallish projects, but it’s easy to see why it’s attractive to him. It’s attractive to me as well and to anyone who prefers to spend more time on the actual work of their work than on the business context of it.

* On a topic unrelated to the main point of this blog post, there are few words more abused in our field than the noun “loft.” It’s a very old word that means an upper room or attic, extended from even older Germanic and Scandinavian words that mean sky and air. In that sense, we call the sky-lighted attic where sails are sewn a “sail loft” and the area where scenery is lifted (“flown”) above a stage the “fly loft.” At some point in US usage, the skylit loft name crept down and took over entire manufacturing buildings, so that they became “lofts.” Then, when those buildings were converted in the mid- and late-twentieth century to artists’ housing, the individual spaces became “loft apartments”; when those same apartments were sold to non-artists, that phrase became quite common. I think a lot of people think it means “spacious” because of their high ceilings and large floorplans, which, I guess, goes back to the “airy” meaning of the root.

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