Ah, those halcyon days of sitting around the main conference room at our office on Monday nights, reviewing sketches of elaborate ironwork railings with curliqued ‘B’s to ornament the orphanage. At the end stages of construction, all of that is illusion. We have a budget crunch and a surplus of wood – over 800 sheets of cut-up plywood and hundreds of 2×4’s left over from all the concrete work, so despite a desire not to use wood in a country prone to rot, we are building the courtyard stairs, the secondary partitions, furniture, and now guardrails out of wood. These elements won’t last the life of the building, but they do not compromise its integrity and can be updated over time.
We have 21 guardrails around the courtyard’s second floor, each ten feet six inches long. Although we have a lot of wood, we don’t have much that long, and I want the top rail to be one piece, so first thing I do is ask Williere, the furniture maker, how many 2×4’s we have that are long enough to create continuous handrails. “None’ he replies. I doubt this, so we go find a few and I design a guardrail with one long top and a series of shorter horizontal and vertical elements, plus some plywood infill and a trio of stars. It has design integrity, if not elegance, and can be built with what we have on hand. I review the drawing with Williere, mark it on the wall at full scale and when I return two hours later he has made a pretty good facsimile of the idea, using four long 2×4’s! Miraculous how a guy who said we had none this morning found plenty to save a few cuts. I explain that we have to use the pieces as I drew them because we do not have enough long 2×4’s to make every guardrail the same. He gives me an inscrutable look, dubious of such advance planning.
Although I like to give the crews autonomy in how they work, I realize the only way to get this built the way I want is to become Williere’s shadow. I spend three hours with him, measuring, cutting, nailing, making sure that the mock-up reflects not only what I want, but materials we have available. This is a challenge for Williere because, as a furniture maker, he thinks of free standing objects, but the way I designed the guardrail it has to be built incrementally out from the columns. He is a pleasant fellow, much brighter than most of the crew. He knows how to find the centerline of a board and when I set a dimension on one side of the rail, he understands its counterpart. He is skilled with a saw; his cuts are accurate. We work well together.
Considering that the material in the guardrail have already been used three or four times, supported concrete for months and been exposed to Haiti’s severe weather, it is bit of a haggard piece of construction. But we will prime and paint it up in a bright color and the children will love peering through its stars. Maybe there is elaborate iron work in the orphanage’s future, but this will get us off to a safe and satisfactory start.