The spirit of craftsmanship lives on in our industry. (Doesn’t it?)

One of the most amazing stories of our lifetime is still playing out in the hostile climate of a desolate world 65 million miles distant. The robotic Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet in January 2004. They were designed to explore a few acres of ground and beam back scientific data for a period of 90 days. That’s all their supremely talented engineers would guarantee and who can blame them. It boggles this mind that such delicate instruments could survive all the hazards of the launch, journey and landing, then communicate at all with mission controllers so far, far away.

Yet there they are more than five years later, having explored many miles more of Mars than envisioned and, at this writing, still sending back useful information. Contemplating this feat conjured up a saying remembered from a long-ago reading of “A Heritage Unique,” the history of PHCC:
    They builded better than they knew.
This was a motto adopted by the National Association of Master Plumbers (NAMP), forerunner of PHCC, in 1886. (Note to snooty grammarians: “builded” was an accepted past-tense verb way back then.) The motto adorned the association’s seal for decades afterward to reflect the spirit of craftsmanship that attended the plumbing trade then and, hopefully, now.

I’ll return to that qualifying adverb. For now, let’s pay tribute to the reality undergirding the plumbing trade’s old motto. In a world in which billions of people still suffer inadequate sanitation and access to clean drinking water, the plumbing manufacturers, engineers, master plumbers and journeymen of the Western world have created products and systems so functional and durable they frequently outlast the generation that purchased them. Toilets, faucets, bathing facilities, water heaters and boilers are more likely to get replaced for cosmetic reasons or technical upgrades than because of breakdowns. Planned obsolescence was never factored into this industry’s business equation.

I’ve been hanging around the industry for upwards of 30 years, and indelible evidence of its craftsmanship has been seared into memory. During that time I’ve been escorted on countless visits to mechanical rooms and basements that served no purpose other than to bear witness to installations their craftsmen were proud to show off.

“Look at those perfect 90-degree bends … notice the polished joints,” they’d say to me. Sometimes we couldn’t gain access to the actual jobsites, but they’d go out of their way to drive me by a building whose functionality itself validated their noble labor inside.

Something else sticks in my mind - two separate visits to the UA’s week-long instructor training session held each August at a junior college in Michigan. Attendees typically give up vacation time to come, sometimes at their own expense, in order to enhance their already considerable craft knowledge.

I engaged scores of training staff and trainees in conversation during these visits. Never once did I hear talk of wages or work rules or disgust with management. The discussions always came around to new technologies, new techniques, better ways to build. The graduation ceremony commences with a traditional standing ovation that pays homage to craftsmanship.

This is our industry at its best. It’s the legacy of the contractors and pipe tradesmen who organized themselves more than a century ago for two reasons. To be sure, one had to do with the root of evil. NAMP’s rallying cry was trade protectionism, trying its best to make sure nobody but licensed master plumbers could buy and sell trade materials. And the plumbers and steamfitters union sought to gain as much as it could in the way of compensation for its members’ toil.

But peering over the historical documents of these organizations, you can’t help but notice an equal amount of emphasis on craftsmanship. Doing the job right. Earning the big bucks they coveted.

That’s this industry’s legacy. It’s still there, I think. Or, as noted earlier, I hope.

Please forgive the skepticism. It’s just that while there are plenty of people in our industry who want to deliver top-notch work, they tend to be drowned out by the noise of cheap, cheaper, and cheaper still that seems to be the motto of our era’s construction industry.

Is it any longer possible to build better than you know when corners incessantly get cut with regard to materials, labor, standards, codes and inspections? I’m asking rather than telling. But truth be told, I’d rather not know the answer.