Why Our Public Buildings Suck


How To Hustle Small Town Taxpayers, or

Eliminate The Middleman Before He Eliminates You

It would be a perfect plot for a movie on the Comedy Channel: A vain and acclaimed business leader who writes cheesy biz-advice books, admires Bucky Fuller and conducts feel-good seminars for corporate titans, turns out to be a common hustler on the public teat who endangers schoolchildren and hospital patients. Lawsuits and hilarity ensue.

In January, a series in the Denver Post revealed that at least 15 schools built by a prominent Colorado contractor had structural problems, some serious enough to keep students out of buildings. Two school buildings in Alamosa must be evacuated if a foot of snow accumulates on the roof. A school in Monte Vista must be abandoned if winds exceed 25 mph (which they do frequently). Spring winds in Kremmling lifted the roof of a new gym by several inches. The contractor for these schools faces similar complaints about other public buildings: A new hospital in Granby has to keep snow shoveled off its shaky roof, and a new county fair complex in Loveland quickly succumbed to winter storm damage. Perhaps the most egregious example is the new elementary school in Meeker, which held 350 students for a year before being declared too unsafe to occupy.

Meeker School

Looking more like a budget housing complex, the generic and bland new Meeker Elementary School sits unused while undergoing massive repairs.

For the Meeker School District, where the drilling boom had created a desperate need for more elementary classrooms, it all started when school principals were schmoozed at a Colorado Association of Schools conference by reps from the Fort Collins-based Neenan Company, a.k.a. “Neenan Archistruction.” Billing itself as a “design/build” firm, Neenan targets rural and small-town school districts and improvement districts that lack know-how for big capital projects. The Neenan website assures school districts it will provide “better designs, less risk, lower costs, better communication, tighter schedules, fewer surprises,” and most important of all, a “single point of responsibility.”

That’s the hard sell: Nothing is more intimidating to most volunteer school board members than being charged with construction of a new building, which could potentially result in a smoking pile of lawsuits and asbestos, with fingers pointing back and forth among dozens of architects, consultants, contractors and suppliers. Thus, it’s tempting to put all your eggs in one basket with a company that declares it has “re-engineered how the construction process works” with its “leading edge design principals” and “innovative people approaches.”

Neenan Archistruction, now the 72nd largest design/build firm in the nation, has in the past decade built or upgraded nearly 100 Colorado schools, along with scores of new buildings for local governments and tax districts. Neenan tells school officials it can take over nearly every vexing aspect of the process, and get them on the inside track for state grant money to boot. The Post revealed that, since 2008, the company has built $158 million worth of schools funded through Colorado’s BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) program, and that two of Neenan’s rival school builders have seats on the BEST board that bestows the state grants. The Post also revealed an elaborate network of kickbacks from builders and subcontractors that makes a mockery of school bond elections in Colorado. Neenan and other contractors have poured tens of thousands of dollars into bond campaigns, and Neenan offers free “pre-election services” IF it gets the bid, which include “Identifying community movers and shakers,” mailing brochures, recruiting volunteers, identifying donors, registering voters, walking precincts and making calls to voters.

David Neenan is a regional business guru who has given seminars for Disney, Hilton, AT&T, Hewlett Packard and the U.S. Army on how to “build wealth with integrity.” He writes biz-advice books like “No Excuses: Be The Hero Of Your Own Life.” An Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Colorado State University College of Business, where he’s also been a commencement speaker, Neenan explains how he approaches construction “as a group of artisans working together.” The Archistruction portfolio prominently includes the green and cutting-edge New Belgium Brewing complex.

Neenan’s cost-savings pitch gained adherents on the Meeker School Board, which decided that previous bids for the new elementary school were too high. After some debate, they hired an owner’s rep with a potential conflict — the rep had worked for two other Neenan projects. Ultimately, Neenan got the contract with no further bids taken, and the new elementary school was built and occupied by 350 students in the fall of 2010. Soon thereafter, ominous indications of structural problems were observed: cracks, bulging walls, moving slabs and failing connectors.

Gary Howell seemed to comprise most if not all of the Neenan structural engineering staff. Initially, Howell tried to discourage the Meeker School District from seeking an evaluation by independent engineers. When the district did so anyway and the problems were found out, he creepily warned against “impugning a fellow engineer.” In December 2011, Howell’s state license was suspended. A school year had elapsed before it was confirmed that the building was unsafe to occupy.

Investigation revealed errors (and carelessness) of almost unbelievable proportion: the structural specs had been based on seismic standards meant for unoccupied storage sheds. Independent engineers likened the structure of parts of the building to a “giant teeter-totter” resting on undersized footings, which in turn rest on a deep fill of unique local soils that are highly compressible. Most of the exterior walls in fact mimic storage sheds, comprising steel studs, 24” on center, skinned by ½” of gypsum and ½” of fiberboard, with no “good path” to distribute wind loads.

Neenan has now promised all its clients that everything will be made good, which could cost a considerable amount. But the point of recounting this story is not to cast David Neenan as a singularly venal, hypocritical or spectacularly sloppy builder, compelling as the case may be. More likely and more alarmingly, these practices are typical of companies that target taxpayers. Equally worrisome is the absence of effective building inspections — a 2007 state audit declared Colorado has “shockingly poor” oversight of K-12 construction. Ben Serratto, the state’s inspector for Meeker Elementary, frequently never showed up for work, falsified reports and inspections and should be fired, according to Serratto’s superior.

Ultimately, this is an apt parable for how bad architecture has come to play a central role in the plight of our public schools. Here in Moab, where there is no boom in population, we are grumpy because we just built these expensive new school buildings (not really “we” — it was all out-of-town contractors) and then had to lay off already underpaid teachers. It’s the same everywhere: bricks and mortar (nowadays gypsum and waferboard) trump education, although nobody ever admits it’s an either/or situation. So, all of you members or wannabe members of school boards faced with new construction, here’s my list of recommended practices, in roughly descending order of importance, that will result in functional, sustainable, community-appropriate and economical new schools:

  1. 1. Proceed essentially as an owner/builder. Your district is now more solvent than anyone you might have turned this over to — you have just passed your bond issue and have $20 million in fresh credit. Hire an experienced local construction manager who will serve as the “single point of responsibility.” Hire your own staff and consultants as needed. Choose local architects and contractors. If your remote little town has a lot of small firms, encourage architects to partner up. Break up the construction into smaller contracts that locals can handle.
  2. 2. Conduct community meetings to solicit input, but don’t just go through the motions. Ensure that the final designs reflect the input as much as reasonable and possible.
  3. 3. Do your own research and be wary of experts, including state regulators, inspectors and bond salesmen. If there are architects or builders on your board, do not cede them undue influence — the district is not their client, and like you, they are there as adherents.
  4. 4. Have a real debate on whether you really need a new building. Would a remodel do? Often, ridiculous reasons are presented for giving an existing building the death sentence. I recall how, years ago, Gunnison avoided a costly new bond with a community barn-raising of new modular classrooms.
  5. 5. Have a real debate about the general concept: does it have to be a custom, potentially award-winning monstrosity, hastily sketched on a laptop by some far-off intern? Does it have to be surrounded by acres of asphalt and bluegrass? Does it have to be built like a prison so that students can’t sneak off and smoke and parents have to go through Homeland Security checkpoints?  Say again why we can’t have opening windows, or classroom doors to the outdoors, or solar panels, or community gardens, or any number of innovations that speak to a unique, one-of-a-kind community?

You’ll get an immediate outcry from the enforcers of conventional wisdom: Schools have to be like this, and you have to hire someone who has built other schools like this. Besides, nobody locally would have the expertise, the esoteric knowledge, the resources, the bonding, the licensing, the insurance, ad infinitum, and we can’t afford the extras you speak of.

None of this is true, and you are being hustled. In every way, superior results can be achieved, at less cost, by staying local. And, if something does go wrong, you can seek redress no further than your fellow citizens and neighbors, rather than some superintendent furiously churning through the punch list so he can pack up the construction trailers and get back home to Fort Collins or Provo.

The same holds true for all of our new town halls, libraries, museums, police and fire stations, hospitals and clinics, senior centers, rec centers and government-owned housing projects. Small towns and tax districts are being hustled by companies who promise lower costs, yet their bids are padded with the not-insignificant expense of relocating serious human and mechanical resources to your far-flung little burg. If you are repelled by the WalMarting of your local retail economy, you should be equally repelled by the WalMarting of our schools and public buildings. In an era where individual consumers are pulling their money away from the big banks, it would be nice if our local movers and shakers could start resisting the hustles of the “experts” and carpetbaggers. If local institutions start granting their host communities more respect, I believe good karma will flow back.

Flip This Burger: Remodeling on Reality TV

This Old HouseBob Vela started it all with his rich yuppie remodels, which featured salt-of-the-earth Yankee contractors and swarms of sagely nodding architects. Vela’s “This Old House” was the first show to latch onto the inherent drama of a structure in process — the “see through” phase where it’s still hard to tell which room is what.

You mainly saw the dramatic shots, like the moment a wall goes up, or a window gets popped in. Then Bob would explain how this nifty, expensive cornice molding is going to be placed — dissolve the shot — and it’s all done, and, by god, done right. The show was all about doing construction right, construction that is, for the upper middle class. During the go-go years of real estate speculation, the genre evolved into a swarm of new shows where there’s not an architect in sight. Instead, we are introduced to every conceivable grade of house hustler, charlatan and wannabe, all convinced that they know “what people want these days.” “Sell This House” and “Flip This House” and ‘Trading Spaces” became the closest thing we have to a national conversation about the buildings we live in.

Realtor“Flip This House” was the show I especially loved to hate. On a typical episode, Charley, the sleazeball realtor/speculator/amateur contractor, stands in the living room of a glorified California tract house, which he has just purchased for $1.2 million, and hopes to sell soon for a hefty profit. “First, I’m gonna tear out these walls (he sweeps his hand) and make this one big room. Over here, I’ll gut this bathroom and replace everything except maybe this granite counter.” Charley then has a protracted argument with his wife Lydia over whether to toss the granite. In the month that follows, massive cost overruns reveal Charley’s lack of construction experience, but in the end he still pockets $45,000 for his dubious services, which consist mostly of ineffectually harassing his Mexican contractor.

Owner/flippers are the most cocksure of their choices, the least likely to consult with a pro and the most consumed by the shopping element — you pick out the granite, the electronic faucets, the hot tub and the chandeliers. Then guys come and install them. To me, it’s an interesting contrast to other shows with a more populist bent, where Junior Decorators are all out on the lawn with staplers and glue guns, happily creating DIY décor out of foam, plywood and bolts of cloth.

“Sell This House” was not about flippers, but aimed at regular folk who just need to sell their house and move on. Jeb and Dorine want to move closer to their jobs and to Dorine’s ailing mother, but they are clueless about how to sell their frumpy old ranch style, which has been on the market for nine months. The show’s crew of interior designers starts by stuffing most of their tshochkes into the garage. Then they show the couple how to paint over their hideous walls and hide the crack in the kitchen linoleum. The $160/Home Depot jiffy spiffup does the trick and the house sells in a flash.

To add some dramatic tension there’s always a remodeling deadline, which happens to be the day of the realtor open house party (“Well Miguel, looks like you’re pulling an all nighter”). It’s a telling detail that it is the realtors, not the owners, who set the deadline, and the realtors, not an architect, who are finally led through the rooms to view and approve the grand transformation.

Those looking for definitive tips or design statements were baffled — on one show, the green walls were painted brown and the ceiling fan was taken down. On the next show, brown walls were painted green and a new ceiling fan was installed. The “After” kitchen cabinets always looked pretty much just like the “Before” kitchen cabinets, minus the grease and clutter. Inexplicably, since the great real estate crash, these shows have not only continued, but proliferated geometrically on cable TV. To name a few, there’s been “Moving Up,” “My First Home,” “Property Ladder,” “Property Virgins,” “House Hunters,” “My First Place,” “Hidden Potential,” “Buy Me,” “Design to Sell,” “The Stagers,” “Sleep On It,” “Kitchen Crashers” and “The Unsellables.” One TV exec observed, “The myth dies hard.”

One show that gets past the myth is “Holmes on Homes,” based on a wizened veteran contractor and home detective who actually fixes stuff. Holmes (and his large crew) disdainfully rips out the work of fly-by-night amateurs and, step by step, shows how to do it right, that is, if your budget is virtually limitless. In that sense, it’s the spiritual heir to “This Old House,” but with a more real-world bent. Where Vela would preside over large and lavish additions with every amenity, Holmes works on houses where the basement floods, or the roof leaks, or the heating doesn’t work, or you can clearly hear your neighbor’s conversations through your party walls. His clients have no grand delusions; they just want the house they thought they paid for.

Hopefully, the era of the skin-deep and hurried makeover is ending. Commodified and Home Depofied, we have endeavored all these years mainly not to build better houses, but more expensive houses, and we got what we deserved — a market burdened with personal fantasies that either nobody wants or nobody can afford, and an architectural ethic in a perpetual state of adolescence. One has to think of old Europe for contrast, where, over the centuries, mistakes are corrected, not just face-lifted. In America, the market has dictated that a home is more likely to be demolished than truly improved.

What would be most welcome is a new round of reality shows aimed at real people who have to survive in our brave new economy:

Squat That Shack: A retired realtor and loan shark helps homeless people spot repos and move into them.

My First Tent: A guide to living on public lands without a permit.

This Old Van: How to fix up your camper to live rent-free in an urban environment.

Slum Sluts: Two designing women advise clients on how to keep their property taxes down by placing derelict cars and appliances in the yard and voting down school bonds.

Trophy Hotel: A design team from Holiday Inn helps destitute owners convert their ski town McMansions into employee housing to pay the mortgage.

Ski Fences

About twenty years ago, I wanted to build a fence made out of skis and bicycle wheels along my small Telluride back yard. Permission was denied by the town Historic and Architectural Preservation Commission. They said it wasn’t historical. But I’ve always liked ski fences, which seem kindred with fences made from surfboards, bowling balls, toothbrushes, bikes and bras. In ski country, they seem as natural and authentic as license plate houses. You get that great picket effect, and they’re bound to last decades longer than any wooden planks, without the aid of paint or oil. I’ve long seen many examples in Colorado, but I see that recently ski fences have also become a craze in Russia.

If you live in a ski town, you can amass old skis with a perusal of ski swaps, free boxes and dumpsters. Most prized are skis without bindings because the bindings are a pain in the ass to remove. If you want a tall fence, with the advent of short skis, the old 200s will be harder to find. For colors, I prefer just going with the random cacophony of industrial day-glo, which gives you a kind of happy camo look, but you can also look for matches or color groupings.

Unless you’re an experienced metal worker, it’s best to avoid designs that require cutting the skis — metal ski edges are very hard and difficult to cut through with home tools. To erect the pickets, you just drill holes through the ski bottoms to accept screws or bolts. Many artisans are also making everything from ski benches and ski Adirondacks to ski coat racks.

Noise in the Mountains: Why do we have to shout in our public buildings?

For the last 30 years, I have lived in passive-solar homes that I designed and constructed. They are all different, but they’ve all been blessedly quiet, allowing us to create our own aural space with conversation or music or silence. It was when I began producing stories for public radio that I became aware of how noisy most buildings are, including buildings that by definition should be quiet. It’s one of the first things you learn when you try to record people “out in the field.” Microphones can amplify unwanted noise: Heating and cooling blowers sound like a B-52 flying through the room. Fluorescent lights emit an urgent, high whine. All sorts of industrial gray noises lurk in between. I ended up conducting many an interview on the back porch.

Make it stop!A few years back, the Town of Telluride was preparing to build a gazillion-dollar new library. The chosen architects held what is known in the trade as a “charette,” (sha-RETT n.: “A meeting where architects pretend to listen to the public, and then follow the path of least resistance”). A few literary types and I showed up and sat in the old library around a table on which was placed a model of a big, fat domino of a new building. I had come to make trouble. I shined my flashlight on the model to simulate how winter sun would penetrate the interior spaces. For starters, half the building was an underground parking garage that would get no sun at all. And they were going to heat this big box with a standard HVAC (Heating/Ventilation/Air Conditioning) package, which is noisy, and libraries are supposed to be quiet. I even pulled out my little cassette recorder and passed around the headphones so everyone could hear the din of the old library’s heating system. Most of the time we don’t notice the noise because our ears are marvelous biological machines that can tune it out, but on a physical level, we are still stressed and strained.

Too LOUD!I could see the architects were unmoved. They already had their bid from the HVAC guy. They were stressing that their design had a “feature” (n.: “a (relatively) interesting little shape stuck on top of the big honkin’ domino”). It was a vertical tower, shaped kinda like a mineshaft, that had no function but  “to pay homage to Telluride’s heritage.” And that’s the way it got built, with a Victorian brick façade that failed to disguise the domino.

In these pages, I have previously scolded architects for their overeager acquiescence to convention and failure to educate the public. In their defense, the ’70s are long gone and they have to make a living dealing with a fickle public. Design it fast. Build it fast. Build it cheaply, and maintain every cubic inch of interior space at an even 71 degrees. To accomplish the latter, use tried-and-true 1940s technology that gulps fuel, rattles, creaks, groans, hums and whines. Provide seizure-inducing industrial light fixtures in rooms that could have been day-lighted by the sun. Blow room air through mold-friendly ducts and crawl spaces. Finish interiors with an indiscriminate array of toxic fibers and goo. In general, give as little thought as possible to the physiology or psychology of the room’s human occupants.

You’re supposed to be quiet in a library, but in churches, schools, theaters, courtrooms and halls of government, you’re supposed to talk, and the building is supposed to be quiet. Noisy examples abound across the Rockies, even in landmark-grade buildings in affluent resort towns. My tape recorder will attest that the worst acoustics in the mountains can reliably be found in city council and county commissioner “chambers.” If I had the archives and Jon Stewart’s editors, I could get a great montage of some of the thousands of times as a reporter I heard the phrases “we can’t hear,” or “we can’t hear in the back.”

Masonic Lodges and other such local gab halls generally also lack the charming acoustics of the Sundowner Room at the Holiday Inn. And many a downtown mountain bar or restaurant has the curse of being located in an old Victorian Boxcar space (long and narrow) with hardwood floors and big windows (any sound roadie will attest that boxcar gigs are the worst).

ZOOOOOOOOM!In the 21st century, small towns in the mountains, resort or not, often have downtown bottlenecks where snow plows, snow making, garbage trucks, recycling trucks, buses, Harleys, cops, ambulances, train crossings, honking drivers and barking dogs all converge, producing, it seems a safe bet, historically high decibel counts coming from the streets.

It’s harder to get away from the noise in our homes too, especially smaller homes with open floor plans, and there are unanticipated scenarios — Mary’s playing the piano in the living room, Bob’s watching NFL in the kitchen, Dutch is singing in the shower and lord knows what Alice and Pierre are doing in the bedroom. The mechanical cacophony adds new sonic layers: furnace whoomping (or swamp cooler huffing), fridge droning, dishwasher whooshing, doors slamming, toilets flushing, drains draining, washers and dryers buzzing, telephones and doorbells ringing and sometimes the shrieking of smoke and burglar alarms.

No wonder we’re reduced to noise-canceling headphones competing with LOUD home-theater systems. Indoors or out, sonic privacy gets harder to achieve, and many of us resort to individual electronic immersion. So just a little nudge, next time you create or reform a space for humans, think about noise.

NOTE TO READERS: A basic premise of this blog is that MG readers spend a lot of time being their own architects. Whether it’s converting your old Volvo for camping, designing a chicken tractor, building a greenhouse, a tree house or your dream house, we are all creating an authentic regional vernacular. The intent is to share personal experiences, trials, tribulations and critical opinions, always looking for ways that everyday life can be better for everyday people.

I hope this blog includes the encouragement of excellence in design of public space. Readers: What are examples in MG country that you like? I admit to liking the new Salt Lake City Library, Yellowstone Lodge, the Taos and Santa Fe plazas, both the old and new Denver Art Museums, Crested Butte’s “Butler Building” theater in the park and KPRK’s art deco radio station in Livingston, Montana.

Hope to soon have a Gmail address for sharing JPGs.

Quonset Physics

I have long been skeptical of the current “alternative” building fads: mud walls, dirt-bag walls, straw walls, tire walls, compacted trash walls, ad infinitum. My standard rap, which falls on deaf ears because it is free advice, goes something like this: You are using techniques appropriate for a third-world village in an American (suburban) context. Walls constitute only 15 percent of the cost of most houses, and such alternatives do not save money, trees or concrete. Rather, the extra-thick walls add up to significant extra square footage, which results in bigger foundations and bigger roofs. And what do all these PC ramblers have for roof structure? Big, thick old-growth timbers and wood planks! For such reasons, I hope the now-fashionable eco-castles don’t become an enduring prototype.

I pray as fervently as the next hippy builder for the end of “balloon framing,” which is what modern wood framing was first called, because it looked so light and insubstantial that it might float away. It’s a ridiculous waste of trees, but persists because it’s a standard that can be estimated with accuracy and erected with moderately skilled labor. I have spent decades slicing wood — it’s the only construction trade for which I can claim master or journeyman status. But wood is subject to the ravages of fire, water, sun, mold and termites, and this old wood butcher thinks more and more about steel. I know I’m not alone — there’s a whole new generation of designers who scour the country for steel artifacts and industrial detritus that can be adapted to residential construction: shipping containers, grain silos, giant culverts. I myself had always wanted to erect a classic American form, the “Quonset” hut. Back in 1941 the U.S. Navy decided it needed a lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere. The now-familiar half pipes were first manufactured in Quonset Point, RI and have since, like the Airstream camper, become part of the vernacular. After World War II, they were mostly sold to farmers, as attested to by construction manuals that still advise you can “use your hay wagon” as a scaffold.

You’ve seen the commercials on TV — get a big steel barn and say goodbye to mini-storage rent! I thought about how sorry I was to see the old Quonset torn down in Telluride, after humbly hosting decades of basketball games, roller skaters and KOTO Halloween parties. But nostalgia aside, I began to see a nifty alternative to the suburban garage. What could be more ideal for an unheated outbuilding than a single skin that serves as structure, sheathing, waterproof membrane and finished, maintenance-free surface, topped off with an aluminum-alloy finish that will probably take centuries to rust out? Little did I know that this project would become a Christo-like exercise in process art, an absurdly simple plan requiring a gymnastic and sometimes frustrating execution.

So how do you buy one? I began by perusing the scores of websites selling steel buildings, many with testimonials like “Uh, me and Bill, we put up this thing in three days.” What I still didn’t know was that everyone’s selling the exact same steel arches, which are made in a handful of factories in the U.S. and Canada. But when I began calling the actual purveyors, you could see smoke coming out of the phone as I was hustled by a homogenous array of ex-carneys, ex-Amway sellers and ex-used-car dealers. Most employ a variation of the same pitch: “You want a 30-foot-by-40 foot-building? So happens I got this building that this guy in Florida didn’t pick up — we got it sitting on the dock here, and I’d love to get rid of it. I’d let you have it for say, $12,500, but you gotta buy it today.”

It took me weeks to sort through the hype and begin to understand the basics of steel arch buildings. The next hurdle was simpler but more mysterious. I had decided to erect my first Quonset in Taos, New Mexico, a town that in modern times has enforced a ruthless architectural conformity. Every last KFC is nothing more than a rectilinear, flat-roofed waferboard box sporting brown stucco and a few decorative timbers. However I could find no local code or covenant that forbade prefab or steel buildings, so I applied for a building permit and crossed my fingers, remembering how, many years ago in the Aspen valley, a snooty architectural control board had denied my request to erect a geodesic dome.

While salesmen continued to call me on an almost daily basis, I developed my shopping list: From the manufacturer, I would buy the steel arches, the steel base plates that attach the arches to the foundation, and a couple of curved, fiberglass skylights. I would construct my own end walls out of wood, with standard entry doors and sliding windows, and the splurge de resistance: two gorgeous, 8-ft.-by-8-ft. aluminum framed glass garage doors, aka service station or firehouse doors. This heavily glazed garage door wall would face southeast and gulp morning sun into the building.

After the slab was poured, we had to drill holes along the two long edges for expanding anchor bolts that would attach the steel base plates. This was a piece of cake with a big honkin’ rental store drill. The building parts came on a flatbed truck, all nestled together like long, steel Pringles. Next would be the fun, dramatic part: Like on the advertisements, we would construct each complete arch on the ground, and then raise it in place with a couple of ropes. We would use a two-level section of staging for the high work. Each arch is two feet wide and has six pieces that bolt together. In no time at all, a building would appear.

We set to work on the first arch, which was unexpectedly heavy when completed. Four of us strained and struggled to lift it up alongside the staging, at one point dropping it and denting a panel. This was my second glitch: when buying the arches, I had discovered that, for a relatively modest cost, I could upgrade to a heavier gauge of steel. Taos gets heavy snowfall, thus I reasoned this is no place to skimp. But the result was that it would take a crane to lift these monsters, and even then you would need a stout custom carriage to keep the arches from deforming under their own weight.

Our solution was to put up one panel at a time. It takes two people to work on each panel, especially up in the air. We used hand ratchet wrenches and cordless drivers. One person has to hold the nut on the inside to keep it from spinning, while the other person drives the bolt tight from the outside (sometimes hanging from a rope). The weather tightness of each arch depends on simple mechanical flashing: the bottom of each segment rests on TOP of the next segment down. We learned the hard way that you have to concentrate to remember this, or it takes tedious unbolting and rebolting if you get a panel flashed wrong. This process took, not “a weekend,” but a whole damned week. Not insignificant were the stoppages due to summer squalls blowing through, when nobody wanted to cling to a giant lightning rod.

Finally the big half pipe was done. It felt impressively solid when we walked on top. The immense, unobstructed and airy interior space became apparent. One surprise: with all that smooth concrete and steel, the acoustics inside are truly awful. They sell insulation kits for these babies — basically you just clip plastic-faced fiberglass bats to the arches. But then aesthetically you would be inside of a big, white bag instead of that clean, geometrically precise steel vault.

One day as we neared completion, an immediate neighbor walked over to tell me I had constructed an abomination that flouted local codes. This same neighbor’s own garage is a box troweled with tan stucco, and he was convinced I had brought his property values down. He seemed to back off a little when I responded that, yes, I had read the county codes calling for the preservation of rural character, and I could think of nothing with more rural character than a Quonset hut — in remote parts of New Mexico, I have come to regard distinctive Q-huts as mile markers. (And to tell the truth, I think outbuildings should be exempt from the style police and it should be okay for a garage to look like a garage.)

The first clue that I was part of a Quonset revival movement came when, on impulse, I sent a photo, with Taos peaks in the background, to my sales rep at SteelMaster Corporation. She informed me that she entered it in their new photo contest. Looking at rival pics on the contest web page, I was amazed by the creativity, intricacy, ingenuity and craftsmanship among the finalists. Ultimately, I finished 5th among Internet voters for cutest new Quonset in the land, and was awarded a nifty SteelMaster coffee cup and some pens that look like bolts with nuts. They are my most cherished professional awards.