skip to Main Content

In Praise of Those Who Do the Dirty Work


Drywall installers, plumbers, HVAC technicians. All those folks and more do a lot of the dirty work in the construction, maintenance, and renovation of buildings. It’s often not fun. I’ve done it myself, so I know. As a teenager, I worked summers with my grandfather, an electrician, HVAC contractor, and plumber. Sometimes we had to slither through 18 inch crawl spaces. This was summertime in Louisiana, where other, more reptilian things slithered, too.

Now I work in the field of building science, where it’s easy to look down on the people who do the dirty work. I’ve been guilty of it. I’ve taken potshots at plumbers and dinged the drywall installers. And I’ve seen a lot of others do likewise. Hey, if the plumber uses a chainsaw to cut a hole for the bathtub drain and then doesn’t air seal, he’s got to be an imbecile, right?

Wrong! It’s easy for those of us who understand how water, air, and heat move to be critical. It’s also easy to condemn not only a particular person but also a whole class of people. “Plumbers are idiots!”

But let’s take a step back. The problem isn’t with all plumbers or all HVAC contractors or all insulation installers. Yes, some are better than others. Yes, there are some who couldn’t care less about the quality of their work. In many cases, however, they do take pride in their work. They just don’t understand the consequences of some of their practices the way we do.

Maybe the problem is lack of education or training. Maybe we need to use a different product. Maybe a new process will be the solution. I think we need to focus on the problem and not the people.

So I’m turning over a new leaf. I’ve been moving in this direction for a while, but I’m going to stop going for cheap laughs by insinuating that plumbers are alcoholics or HVAC techs must be from a planet with no atmosphere. And as hard as it’s going to be, I’m even going to lay off of the cable guy.

The people who crawl around under houses, brave the blistering attics, and don the oppressive personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to do the dirty work deserve better from us. They work hard. They’re amazing resourceful. They know how to do a heck of a lot of things that I couldn’t do.

It’s OK to be critical of the work, but let’s stop and think before condemning the worker.


Related Articles

Not All Knowledge Comes from College

Is Mike Rowe Right about the War on Work?

The Gap Between Stupid and Hurt Is Narrowing


NOTE: Comments are moderated. Your comment will not appear below until approved.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Trades done well are a thing
    Trades done well are a thing of beauty. RE: drywall – look at Myron Ferguson’s books. My observation is that poor trade work is the result of 2 things – poor planning (including plan changes without knowledge of all the ramifications, and “the customer wanted it there” syndrome), and rush-to-the-bottom low-bidder selection where the profit margin is so slim there is no time to do things right (just cheap).

  2. Allison,
    Great analysis of the tradesmen conundrum we observe. I agree with Mr. Eakin’s take as well. I have found in my conversations with many of the technicians in the field when approached with good questions about how to improve practices, most are receptive. I do however think that a robust apprenticeship revival needs to occur if we want to improve the construction landscape and a basic course in building science should be a requirement. No sense beating up on someone for simple ignorance.

  3. Thanks for the kind words,
    Thanks for the kind words, Allison. 31-year trade professional here. Fortunately, there are still some that appreciate our services. I enjoy reading your articles and appreciate your work, too. I think a big problem is that many of my trades brothers don’t think outside their profession. A good example is a job I am working on today, moving some drains in a remodel project: The previous plumber notched and drilled a 2×8 joist so badly that it lost nearly all of its structural integrity, resulting in the floor dipping in the area. I’ll be sistering a new 2×8 joist and re-routing the plumbing. The longer I work in the trades, the more I strive to do good work that considers all the functions and uses of each part of a building. I agree that the Almighty Dollar (and the erosion of its integrity) is the cause of bad work, and certainly the justification I often hear for cutting corners. Please keep up the good work of demystifying building science and bridging engineering and construction.

  4. Allison – once again you are
    Allison – once again you are absolutely right! Education is the solution to misunderstanding and ignorance. The trick is getting the folks who need it to attend training. Oh, so very often I find contractors in my classes who are amazed at the number of things they never thought about. At the same time, I am equally amazed at the number of things I can learn from “those who do the dirty work” every single day.

  5. Having never gotten paid to
    Having never gotten paid to do any of the dirty trades, but with lots of time doing and learning myself and paying others on occasion, I think part of the problem is expectations. I had a plumber do a sloppy job on my water line but it was functional and met code. Nonetheless, I ripped most of it out and re-did it because I expected the pro work to be BETTER than i could do (the that’s why we pay people to do stuff, right?). When he came back to address an unrelated issue, I showed him the work and his response was “well, I could have made it look good too, but I didn’t know you wanted it all neat and pretty”. He had the skill, he had the time, but had become complacent in his ways because he thought it didn’t matter. Perhaps getting better results is simply a matter of letting people know we expect it…and that we actually appreciate it when things are done well.

  6. “Maybe the problem is lack of
    “Maybe the problem is lack of education or training. Maybe we need to use a different product. Maybe a new process will be the solution. I think we need to focus on the problem and not the people.”

    I’m with David E – The problem isn’t the trades not knowing what to do, it’s the trades not having what to do be part of the design specification that they bid to.

    Bad work is usually cheaper to do than good work. If “better” is not in the specification, it will never make it into the project. The contractor that puts it into his bid will not get the job.

    We call this industry “Home Performance” – but how many actually measure “Performance?” Most measure some poor proxy, claim “success!”, then move to the next. This places all the risk of REAL performance on the consumer.

    Any surprise the Home Performance industry is flat lining (see Peter Troast’s webinar on Google Search), This “industry” claims to be about a thing it doesn’t measure – and IMO does a pretty poor job of delivering.

    We need to change this. We need a way to show consumers they can have confidence they’ll get a good result. A way to make contractors partners in achieving good results.

    We need to track results. Show our past work delivered. Have some accountability and reward potential for measured outcomes and accurately delivering on promise.

    We need Amazon for Home Performance. Performance that is actually measured and ranked. It is our hope that by tracking outcomes and ranking contractors on performance they can get compensated for better client education, design, and implementation.

  7. Allison,
    There is a beautiful inscription above the South entry doors to Vanderbilt Hall, Grand Central Terminal:


    Maybe something similar above the door to your newly renovated bathroom is in order.

  8. Well said, Allison!
    Well said, Allison!

    A number of years ago I was helping close out a doctor’s office building and happened to notice extraordinarily well-done caulking around the base of the toilets. Full disclosure, I am “caulking challenged” and often use the painters tape technique in a effort to create sharp lines. When I see beautifully applied, freehand caulking I’m impressed.

    I encountered the young man doing the work a bit later and complimented him on his efforts. From his reaction, I could be persuaded no one had ever taken a moment to tell him the fine work he was doing. “Yep, it’s a little thing, but I’m proud of the way it looks!”. “You should be.” I said.

    Sometimes we forget the importance of encouraging excellent work, not only through training but also recognizing folks when they demonstrate the level of competence expected of them.

    Now, quit BS’ing and get the rest of those toilets installed!” 🙂

  9. Good article. I’m sure we
    Good article. I’m sure we can lay some blame on the architects or the homeowner for designing homes without a thought given to plumbing and HVAC design. It’s why I loathe the idea of buying a ‘renovated’ older home. With new construction there’s no excuse of course since architects and builders should know by now that it’s a bad idea to install the HVAC system in a garage or a vented attic space.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top