2 Comments on each arctical

Universit of Minnesota Press

Chapter Title: SPECIFYING: The Generalit of Clerical Labor
Chapter Author(s): MICHAEL OSMAN

Book Title: Design Technics
Book Subtitle: Archaeologies of Architectural Practice
Book Editor(s): Ze nep elik Alexander, John Ma
Published b : Universit of Minnesota Press. (2020)
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctvtv938x.9

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C H A P T E R 5

The Generality of Clerical Labor

In industrial society, the distinction between immaterial products of the mind and material products of the hand— between art and craft— underlies a hier- archy that has come to organize the modern labor force. In this context, the
architect’s work could be considered creative or artistic as long as it can be clearly
di!erentiated from the craftsman’s labor. This distinction did not always exist,
and the role of the architect was not always so certain. Written speci”cations—
instructions written by the architect to the various tradesmen— served as an in-
strument for formalizing that di!erence as well as asserting the designer’s intellec-
tual product as an organizational guide for the crafts.

Speci”cations were thus essential in constituting an architectural profession,
particularly in the United States around the middle of the nineteenth century, a
moment of the nation’s greatest industrial expansion. As an instrument of the
architect’s practice, the speci”cation reinforced an identi”cation of his work as
creative and his workplace as a site for clerical as well as intellectual production.
In addition, the document helped integrate and formalize processes of construc-
tion in an economy that would soon be based on a wide array of machine- made
products to be selected by the architect. Once new professional institutions estab-
lished speci”cations as the legal basis for any contract, they inherited the force of
law and situated the architect in a managerial role over both machine and human
labor. The construction of any architectural project could thereby be viewed as
the designers’ intellectual e!ort translated into a physical product.

Recently, as many tools of architectural design have become democratized
through more widely available digital software, professional organizations and
their paperwork, including speci”cations, have begun to appear less central to
securing architects’ collective identity as creative. In response to this trend, many

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130 M I C H A E L O S M A N

have hypothesized that securing cultural power in the future will require a shift
in one’s engagement toward what has become known as “mass customization.”
Mario Carpo has described this process as “an essential trait of the new digital
environment: mass production and customization can now coexist.”1 Rather than
accept the industrial hierarchy of the mind leading the hand, architects and critics
convinced of this future argue that digital design will relocate creativity in the
collapse of conceptualization into production. The product that results from this
new con”guration, it is imagined, will be formed through the communication
between designers’ tools and those of fabricators without the need for such medi-
ating devices as speci”cations. Advocates for this trend have also argued that as
these two formerly separated identities merge into one, professional organiza-
tions will be outmoded as they come to serve a bygone social role.

One of the central polemics of this movement is a critique of architectural
modernism’s professed devotion to standards, that is, the conventions that bind
various industries together in the processes of mass production. According to the
“”le- to- factory” model, the mediating role of standards to mass production will
be bypassed by the direct translation of a designer’s concept— packaged as a
bundle of data— into a so- called nonstandard product. As a central spokesman
of this movement, Carpo contrasts the age of identical reproduction that sought
to maximize the e#ciency of production through standards to a digital future
that overcomes standards through the equally e#cient production of in”nitely
di!erentiated, customized creations.

If the distinctions between art and craft, concept and product, custom and
standard are quickly dissolving into digital ether, then it is important to consider
their history as they came into being, especially if they established the very pre-
conditions for this potentially massive technical revolution. Because the architec-
tural speci”cation was central to forming the distinctions between the architect’s
concept and its production in the “rst place, the history of this instrument should
reveal the underlying logic of modern practice before its complete digitalization.
It follows, also, that such a history can help test the hypothesis that the purpose
of professional organizations will soon be eclipsed as the period of standardized
mass production comes to its predicted end.

In the United States, some of the “rst speci”cations were written by architects
who designed wood- framed buildings around the middle of the nineteenth century.
By focusing on this case, my purpose is to identify the function of speci”cations
for a particular form of construction, most common in America, and one that
came to exemplify for modernists a salient instance of standardized building at
the dawn of its application for mass production. How did various forms of knowl-
edge come to be divided through documents developed for producing wooden

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Specifying 131

buildings? Did standards help establish that division, or were they products of
other forces? And why exactly were standards useful in developing architectural
speci”cations? Under what conditions could a distinction between customized
and standardized products come into being and, “nally, how could that distinction
ever cease to exist?

In the “rst decades of the twentieth century, as workers employed in the con-
struction trades around the world adopted methods from large- scale industry,
European architects pointed to the American balloon frame as a technique that
had already successfully translated standards into a construction system for nearly
a century.2 According to the German architect Konrad Wachsmann, it was the
simplicity of the frame’s parts and assembly that had laid the basis for converting
houses into industrially produced commodities. Mass- produced materials such
as studs, hardware, and paint were central to his understanding of the way labor
processes were organized and made more e#cient. In Holzhausbau, published in
1930, he wrote:

The American typically buys from a catalogue in which a “xed price is stated— just
as for an automobile or any other industrial product. . . . The building materials
are delivered to the construction site carefully packed, sorted, and numbered. All
necessary tools, nails, paint, etc., are also provided. Using such exactly- machined
materials anyone can, without assistance, assemble and construct his own house.3

Wachsmann’s reference is to the so- called ready- cut houses, delivered by Sears,
Roebuck and Company beginning in 1908. He identi”ed ballooning as this con-
struction system’s origin (Figure 5.1). For him, the process of rationalizing the
balloon frame through the American building industry served as a precedent for
the factory- built wooden houses that he hoped to produce in Germany. By the
time Wachsmann published his book, he had already left his job as the chief archi-
tect for the industrial house company Christoph & Unmack, established in 1887
in Niesky. While there, he had sought to reorient that “rm’s production from
delivering “nished buildings to fabricating a modular system that could be con”g-
ured according to the client’s desires. He thus viewed the American model as a
successful example of applying standards to broaden the audience of potential
buyers. Albert Einstein’s summer house in Caputh, designed by Wachsmann in
1929 for Christoph & Unmack, was one instance of his modular system put into
action (Figure 5.2).4 Later experiments with the so- called Packaged House Sys-
tem, which he developed with Walter Gropius after their move to the United
States, pushed house construction into emerging methods of automation. These

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132 M I C H A E L O S M A N

houses signal the apotheosis of the modernist devotion to standards, one with a
nearly absurd belief in the capacity of an architect to seamlessly integrate indus-
trial processes into practice.5

The architectural historian Sigfried Giedion shared Wachsmann’s view that
ballooning represented an early instance of construction’s translation into an
industrial system. Nineteenth- century innovations in the American industries of
tool making, automated nail cutting, and lumber milling were central to Giedion’s
valorization of American ingenuity and were all critical to modern wood- building

Figure 5.1. These twenty- four drawings illustrate some variations on the techniques for
assembling what Wachsmann called “the wood- frame system,” 1930. Konrad Wachsmann,
Building the Wooden House, trans. Peter Reuss (Basel: Birkhäuser Architecture, 1995), 19.
Reprinted with permission.

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Specifying 133

techniques. To his mind, the general emphasis on machinery opened the new
nation to more rapid industrialization than its European counterparts by avoiding
the lag brought about by the traditional crafts found in those countries. Without
the organized resistance of artisans to technological change, by his logic, indus-
trialists could more easily set labor on a scienti”c basis and standardize practices
that would be otherwise embodied in habitual techniques of skilled craftsmen.
The seemingly inevitable tendency of large- scale industrial production toward
deskilling laborers was, by Giedion’s account, enabled by the agreement of fac-
tory owners to work through standards.6 Thus, both Giedion and Wachsmann
used the balloon frame as an example of the incipient standardization of con-
struction to clarify and re”ne modern architecture by foregrounding its attune-
ment to industry. From today’s perspective, these ideas appear to have laid the
basis for that essential motive of modernism.

But over the span of nearly one hundred years, from the mid- nineteenth to
the mid- twentieth century, the structural wooden frame— ballooning included—
was never standard. Evidence of its instability is immediately visible in the dia-
grams drawn by Wachsmann and in the three variations of the wood frame
included by Charles George Ramsey and Harold Reeve Sleeper in their Architec-
tural Graphic Standards, published in 1932. The illustrations were originally distrib-
uted by the National Lumber Manufacturers Association in an e!ort to promote
industry standards, beginning around 1920. The drawings were standardized in
their graphic representation, but each frame varied from the others in its details.

Figure 5.2. Konrad Wachsmann, four elevations, three plans, and a section of Landhaus
Prof. Einstein built in Caputh by Christoph & Unmack AG, 1929. Schwielowsee Municipal

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134 M I C H A E L O S M A N

Based on the list of distinguishing parts and their assembly, the diagrams were
titled “balloon,” “braced,” or “western” (Figure 5.3).7 The long history of wood
frames is a litany of regional di!erences in the methods of construction as well
as elemental parts. Ted Cavanagh, a historian of wood construction, has shown a
general trend toward the technical convergence of the frame from its numerous
traditional craft techniques, based in the builders’ European origins.8 Still, di!er-
ences in this resulting type remain necessary as builders respond to ongoing shifts
in industrial methods for producing lumber parts and nails, the means of their
delivery, and updates to their tools for assembly.9

Due to the widely accepted modernist emphasis on the industrial standardiza-
tion of the balloon frame, little attention has been placed on the way the frame
served to mediate architects’ knowledge of construction and that which remained
with builders. The frame did not come into existence with its own internal stan-
dards in materials or in their assembly. Further, professional organizations were
not precon”gured with the power to develop contractual relationships around a
standardized frame. Rather, it is the history of speci”cations in architectural prac-
tice that reveals how the frame could be de”ned as both a conceptual and material
object through the mediation o!ered by this form of paperwork. Architectural

Figure 5.3. Drawings of
(a) balloon- frame construction,
(b) braced- frame construction,
(c) and western- frame
construction. National Lumber
Manufacturers Association,
House Framing Details
(Washington, D.C.: National
Lumber Manufacturers
Association, 1929).


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136 M I C H A E L O S M A N

professionals, in other words, incorporated speci”cations in order to more clearly
identify their role as intellectual producers in the context of that rapidly industri-
alizing nation.

As we shall see, with the architectural speci”cation, the balloon-frame technique
could be codi”ed. The professional status of architects relied on this codi”cation
to maintain an association of their work with producing theoretical knowledge.
Writers who produced instructions for making balloon- framed buildings in pattern
books— which many builders would have probably ignored— sought to establish
a distance between the labor of design and that of construction. Further, control
over certain aspects of the frame’s construction were left beyond the purview of
architects, not included in their written instructions, and thus remained unregu-
lated by legal contracts. This allowed for incremental changes to be made to
the frame, retaining only general descriptions, and therefore omitting those slight
di!erences from the history of architectural design. I use the term general rather
than the modernist preference for standard to emphasize speci”cations’ capacity
to allow for changes in techniques of industrial production or regional di!er-
ences in executing a design. For my purposes, generality— much like genus when
compared to species— helps explain the similarities in many buildings built over
one hundred years while still allowing for their in”nite number of disparities. As
speci”cations allowed architectural production to be identi”ed with theoretical
knowledge, generalizing a craft technique also gave force to the association of an
architect’s labor with creativity. Creativity, in other words, was secured through
clerical work. The document’s e!ect on the frame is therefore not immediately
evident from detailed surveys of houses, barns, and churches built in the United
States during this time. Rather, to understand its role in the process of building
construction, we must turn to the historical changes in the status of that paper-
work as it secured a social relation between art and craft in the middle of the
nineteenth century.

Notably, speci”cations were developed long before nineteenth- century Ameri-
can architects and builders worked on the design and construction of wooden
frames. As Tilo Amho! and Katie Lloyd Thomas have shown, written instruc-
tions were used to direct the building trades as early as the middle of the eigh-
teenth century in England, and similar documents existed elsewhere even earlier.10
In his work on the reproduction of text and images in architectural theory, Mario
Carpo reminds us that before plans for buildings were transmitted in images, they
were often reproduced through a process of oral transmission, which can be
interpreted as another form of architects’ instructions.11 But once techniques for
building construction became widely disseminated through the publication of
nineteenth- century instructional manuals, speci”cations took on two important

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Specifying 137

functions for practicing architects: they identi”ed the source of an architectural
design with an expert author and they invested that author with the power to
control the construction process from a distance. The relatively late formation of
the architectural profession in the United States, in the 1850s, and the slow adop-
tion of documents for practice allowed the speci”cation to be manipulated by a
group of emerging American architects as an interface— a mode of communica-
tion but also a boundary— between the intellectual labor of designing buildings
and the physical demands of managing materials and labor on an industrializing
construction site.12

Outside their role in building construction, according to a law guiding English
patents formulated in 1718, speci”cations would be required as supplements to
drawings. James Puckle’s design for a machine gun was an early example of an
invention that required “an instrument in writing” to indicate its practical method
of operation (Figure 5.4). This precedent formed a particular legal relation be-
tween word and image that carried over into patent law in the United States.13
Beginning in the 1790s, American tool builders wrote speci”cations for their pat-
ents to describe machines that mass- produced everything from cotton thread to
nails to lumber.14 As Giedion keenly observed, collections of these patents made
it possible to understand broad historical shifts in the knowledge that shaped early
American industries. For example, it is possible to see a shift around the 1820s, as
lumber- milling and nail- cutting machines were powered by steam rather than
human or natural sources of power. In such cases, speci”cations helped explain
details that were not immediately evident in the drawing, they bound an inven-
tion to its inventor, and situated it as an improvement to other related patents,
thereby explaining its value as a product of creative labor.

Writing speci”cations for architecture, like those for patents written by an
inventor, ensured the “nal physical object would conform to the design, beyond
its description in the drawings. It thereby further con”rmed the authorship of
the architect— as a creator of ideas— and forced the contractor to accept the terms
of his design before beginning the process of constructing a building. On the
other hand, speci”cations for buildings were di!erent from patents because they
also formalized the sequence for the object’s assembly and often included a bill
of materials with cost estimates for industrially produced parts. Thus, beyond
connecting the drawing to the architect- as- author, the speci”cation also gave
the client and the builder a basis from which to predict and negotiate the cost
of construction.

The di#culty of controlling any aspect of construction around the middle of
the nineteenth century becomes evident with a quick glance at the various meth-
ods used by manufacturers of building materials to market their products. Nails,

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Figure 5.4. James Puckle, Drawing and Specifications for a Portable Gun, 1718. Patent
no. 418 (1718); European Patent Office, GB171800418.

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Specifying 139

for example, were priced by their pennyweight, a unit that was based on varying
increments of length and, once the industry moved from metal plate to wire, a set
of corresponding gauges. These changes made predicting the cost of nails, often
the most expensive material involved in house construction, di#cult to calculate
and often incorrect.15 Lumber merchants used even more complex techniques
to calculate prices for their product from the sizes of logs based on equations
called “log rules,” related to the diameter and length of a log. Tabulations based
on these equations were collected in “Ready Reckoners,” books used by mer-
chants to estimate the price of the parts purchased from a mill and sold to a con-
tractor for a given job, whether a house or a boat.16 These sources of data, with
their variations in units and inevitable errors in calculation, were the only link
between industrial producers, merchants, and builders. To maintain a pro”table
business, a builder would need to accommodate the variability in prices according
to a geographic region or resulting from di!erent methods for milling wood or
cutting nails.

Builders who sought to expand their business were thus not only invested in
methods for assembling wood parts with nails, they must have also sought to
know about the availability of these elements in di!erent regions and relied on
various printed sources to predict their prices. Based on the massive proliferation
of balloon- frame buildings in the 1850s, it is clear that the published data helped
builders construct a similar frame in di!erent regions of the country by purchas-
ing similar parts at similar costs, assembled similarly.

From this limited survey of early nineteenth- century practices related to
wood construction, it is clear that the relations between producers, merchants,
and builders depended heavily upon regional associations. If Wachsmann imag-
ined a background for producing the balloon frame as an already integrated
system of mass production, this was still far from the case at the end of the nine-
teenth century and was never fully realized in the twentieth century, even by such
large corporations as Sears & Roebuck. Rather, relationships between builders
and industry required establishing conventions to organize the building trades
as well as the emerging interest of professional architects to formalize their
forms of organization. With speci”cations, relationships between an architect’s
design, the activities of the builder, and his sources for materials could appear
integrated, at least from a distance— that is, we could say that they were made
general. These documents do not immediately give evidence of industrial inte-
gration but more clearly mark a fundamental transformation in the American
architect’s self- description. That is, in them we see the development of methods
for managing the value of architectural design as separate from the construction

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140 M I C H A E L O S M A N

Before speci”cations became an o#cial instrument in American architectural
practice, contracts and drawings were the only methods for directing the builder’s
work. For example, a contract written in 1799 between the architect Benjamin
Henry Latrobe and the builder responsible for executing the marble work of the
Bank of Pennsylvania stipulated that all drawings should be followed strictly (Fig-
ure 5.5). If a failure resulted from a discrepancy from the physical execution of the
architect’s drawings, fault in the construction would be assigned to the builder;
otherwise the liability would land on the architect.17 But there was no legally bind-
ing way to stipulate the process of construction beyond the contract and the draw-
ings; these decisions were left entirely to the builder. Without specifying the process
of assembly or the materials for construction, the written contract and the legal
power it carried always relied on the drawings. This situation often allowed build-
ers to interpret the architect’s drawings against the designer’s intentions.

Based on his experience in England, Latrobe expressed his frustration with the
lack of legal recourse for an architect working in the United States.18 In the case

Figure 5.5. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, contract for the Bank of Pennsylvania without
specifications, 1818. Library of Congress, Benjamin Henry Latrobe Papers, ADE— UNIT
2546, no. 15 (D size) [P&P].

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Specifying 141

of wood- framed buildings, according to Mary Woods, this compromised power
was more extreme because the early nineteenth- century architects were rarely
involved in such projects. Particularly when houses were to be built from wood,
they were usually produced by master builders who were called “mechanics.”19
There remain some records from the early nineteenth century that reveal the
means these tradesmen employed. By the 1830s, as Dell Upton has shown in some
detail, builders began collecting images and texts in pattern books with the aim
of publicizing their skills in realizing a range of designs. These books also served
to conventionalize knowledge of various construction techniques, but they did
not include ballooning.20 Those who published pattern books eventually included
speci”cations. From a selection of these books, written by both builders and
architects, it is possible to illustrate changes in the form of that document and the
various authors’ hopes for its anticipated e!ect.21

Asher Benjamin’s popular book The Architect; or, The Practical House Carpenter,
issued seventeen times between 1830 and 1857, described the “ve classical orders
to instruct carpenters on the proportions of their details (Figure 5.6). The title’s
lack of di!erentiation between architect and carpenter makes explicit the still-
unresolved professional status of architects. There were no speci”cations included
in the book, another sign that the di!erence between theoretical and practical
knowledge had not yet been divided between a building’s design and its construc-
tion. The book included some rudimentary instruction in geometry to help crafts-
men lay out trusses, but among these basic lessons Benjamin made no reference
to construction systems that used mass- produced parts.22 While apocryphal sto-
ries trace the balloon frame’s origins to the period in which Benjamin’s book was
“rst published, its absence among those pages indicates that either he was unaware
of the technique or that he did not consider it relevant to an audience of builders
primarily interested in the proportions of classical ornaments.23

One early American pattern book to include speci”cations was Richard Upjohn’s
Rural Architecture, published in 1852, “ve years before he cofounded the profes-
sional organization known as the American Institute of Architects (AIA).24 The
book illustrated four of his designs: a wooden church, a chapel, a schoolhouse,
and a parsonage. None were given a speci”c location beyond their rural surround-
ings, depicted in the perspective drawings. The stated purpose for his book was
to provide designs for “cheap but still substantial buildings” for the nation’s west-
ward expansion. These designs were devised to broaden the in$uence of an
already successful New York– based practice. The book thus …

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