Let's Hear It for People Who Sweat and Get Dirty!

I worked as a janitor at St. Camillus elementary school after school and in the summers when I was in high school. I enjoyed the camaraderie with the other high school kids I worked with, and the crusty Dutch man who was our boss. We cleaned every afternoon in the school year and on weekends, and then painted, cut the grass, and did maintenance on the heating system and other equipment in the summer. We took pride in our work, but we also had fun—once in a while playing a game of eraser hockey in the Camellia Room, when it wasn’t set up for a school event or a wedding reception.

But working as a janitor gave me my first taste of how people who work with their bodies can be treated in our culture. A teacher at the elementary school asked us to set up chairs for a meeting. I want 20 chairs. You can set up 5 rows of 4, or 4 rows of 5… Maybe she talked that way because she was used to talking to first graders, but I felt she was being condescending. There were other incidents. Cleaning up after wedding receptions was the worst. We tried to keep the bathrooms spotless, but people seemed to use the sinks and toilets from afar, if you get my meaning. It was as if they new that some poor schmuck was going to clean up after them, so they didn’t care. Poor schmucks don’t need to be treated with respect.

I haven’t worked with my body for a long time. When my wife and I decided to redo our kitchen cabinets, I remembered how valuable a professional painter can be. They have all the right tools, and the experience to get the job done right, and efficiently. It took us way too much time and effort because we didn’t have the best tools and did not know how to do the job efficiently. Because someone does physical work, we can think there is nothing going on upstairs. But people develop their craft by reading, listening, asking questions, trying things, and watching others do the work. To do good work efficiently requires a lot of thought, experimenting, rethinking, and practice. Plus, the person picking up your garbage may have a PhD in Philosophy!

I think that one of the reasons that the home performance industry has not nearly reached its potential is that people in general don’t value the work of people who crawl in crawlspaces and attics. We consider people who sweat and get dirty to be less than professional. So why would we invite them into our houses?

Am I completely off base? What do you think?

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Comment by Jim Gunshinan on February 4, 2014 at 2:14pm

There was a great article in the New York Times by two academics (I value their work too) about the dangers of extreme inequality in a society. Where there is a big divide between those who are well off and those who are not so well of economically and not shown the same dignity and respect, there is an increase in depression and anxiety among the not so well off and narcissism and mania among those who are super-well off. It's part of our DNA to want to be respected and valued by others in our communities. It's very basic. When that is not there everybody suffers. The more we extend respect and dignity to everyone, the healthier we are as a people.

Here's a link to the article:


Comment by Patrick Michaelyan on February 3, 2014 at 8:16pm

This is a topic close to heart. I've been on both sides of the spectrum (suit & tie jobs versus boots & belts jobs).

What we pay most trades is unjust, but there is no one group to blame (there are many).

I now fill my years with lots of physical labor. I use my head to design and then spend large amounts of time implementing. The brain is constantly active when implementing most true solution-based projects (especially in existing homes). The knowledge of most tradesmen and women is highly undervalued...this should be no surprise to any of those in this experiment known as Home Energy Pros. The work of the typical laborer is almost undervalued to the point of a sin of ignorance. 

I blame myself (the "pro"), the homeowner, and the a-holes (all those who would distort or hide the truth about the outstanding value of providing solutions to problems experienced in homes). 

I am reading resumes and e-mail replies to a recent job posting and I see that special trait that has helped to keep societies moving for centuries. The trait is strength. Not just the strength to lift or move heavy things, but the strength to move forward and do what you have to do in the face of physical and mental challenges. If you have ever had to fully clean out a war-zone of an attic or crawl space then you know what I am referring to.

We owe it to those "tinkering" on our homes all the way to those rehabbing and rebuilding our homes the respect they deserve. Many of "them" are the front line laborers and trades. "They" extend to the exceptional tradesman\contractor--the ones who do great work, and further a craft\trade by passing on the skills and knowledge of their craft\trade. In order to truly respect these men and women, we have to be willing to pay to have these folks to do the work we cannot or choose not to do. 

I know that I have changed my way of interacting with clients to promote my feelings on the undervalued service(s) of the HP professional and his\her crew(s). I no longer accept the idea of "free estimates." An HP pro always provides valuable info, and this has to be paid for. I am candid in explaining why HP pros utilize higher-quality practices and materials. I often have to go for the jugular or bust. I really feel I owe it to our industry to not pussy-foot what we are providing (over the status quo). Pictures and testimonials do the majority of the talking.

Finally, dirty and sweaty makes me think of men in the trenches during the world wars. Dirty and sweaty protecting what we as humans intrinsically value (life, love, etc.), forced to endure much physical and mental anguish in the hopes that they forge a better future. Bodies hardened by the harsh realities of armed struggle. 

Having been on both sides of the fence (academia and labor), I hope each side will support the other in promoting durable, sustainable homes. I can see the answer to many current equity and sustainability challenges emerging from a sustained partnership between the trades and the academics.

If these dirty and sweaty folks are in our homes then we owe them respect (for what we have paid someone to do what most of us could not). We owe them a living wage and we owe them our understanding when their efforts to solve our problems force them to balance our project with other projects. 

P.S. Invite a "suit" into your house and ask him to go nuts in your attic or crawl space. He'll be as dirty and sweaty as the grunt in a few hours. Will we let perception rule our value judgments?

Comment by Ben Jacobs on February 3, 2014 at 4:45pm

I agree with Jim that there is a lot more pleasue and sense of accomplishment in doing jobs where you can easily see the outcomes and fruits of your labor.  I have worked in sweaty labor intensive jobs and in administrative office jobs wherein you do not see postive outcomes or benefits of your work for weeks, months, or years.

I think the professionals and experts in building profession and home performance industry should try to define their outcomes and products in more simple terms that can be more easily understood by the vast amount of Americans that comprehend at the 6th grade level.  I recommend that we adopt a shared vision that we all collaborate and work to achieve which can be undestood by some 95% of the USA:  

A world where everyone can live in an affordable, healthy, safe, durable, energy efficient home.



Comment by Tom Conlon on February 3, 2014 at 2:38pm

I too have been an over-educated underfloor philosopher, so probably I have thought about this way too much.

Insecure people disrespect those they consider to be Other to make themselves feel better. Others may not intend to be disrespectful, but through their inattentiveness may convey the same message. More thoughtful people realize we must acknowledge and honor all labor whose benefits we enjoy (however menial we may consider it to be) because we know that absent this division of labor we would have to make or do all these things ourselves, or else go without. 

Working class people who deliver a skill or productivity out of proportion to the prestige and compensation they receive in exchange for it are the ones who feel this type of disrespect most keenly. Every few generations we depend on them to rise up and reset the balance of respect in society. Here in the US we are probably overdue for such a clock-cleaning.

But disrespect can go both ways. I've seen competent tradespeople who ought to know better disrespectfully take advantage of the 'rich schmucks' who don't have any clue what it should cost to replace a water heater. I've seen others break appointments carelessly, or leave an attic or a crawlspace in a shambles just because they know they can get away with it.

I think the reluctance of people to invite contractors into their homes has more to do with the fear they might suffer from such disrespectful behavior themselves, and their distrust that a contractor will actually deliver what he or she is promising. 

- Peripatetic Electric - "For all your commercial and residential electrical needs"

Comment by terry nordbye on February 3, 2014 at 1:57pm

I compare people who crawl around in hellish attics and crawlspaces with intention of making a better, healthier building for the inhabitants, to those who wash the feet of homeless people. Most homeowners regard attics and crawlspaces as a far away dark planet they might visit someday. Who in their right mind would choose to do the work required to make a good crawlspce or attic?  I guess that is the rub, we assume people who crawl in dirt and rat poop for living are not in their right mind. In the end it comes down to trust and vibes. If you trust the message and the intention and the value of the person in front of you, they are the ones you choose to work with.

Comment by David Williams on February 3, 2014 at 11:34am

Thanks for starting this discussion.  My father worked for the Bell system, as an installer and supervisor, for thirty five years.  When he was in his late fifty's', the governor of our state appointed him to the State Vocational Technology Board.  Sitting amongst members with PhD's, who had spent most of their lives in academics, he felt out of place for the first two years.  This board met once a year, in places like Florida and Hawaii.  The "free vacation" accomplished little to help the students and eventually my Dad asked this group of highly educated board member if they knew what skill were being taught at the Vo-Techs AND what the salaries were for those that completed these programs.  Had anyone paid someone to work on their car, fix their plumbing, repair or install electrical equipment, etc..  Of course they had and they were aware of the exorbitant rates that they were charged.  He then suggested that they hold their next  "meeting" on the campuses of the Vo Tech Colleges, just to see Who and What was being taught.  This experience changed the Board forever - which was about four years, when this board was absorbed by the University Systems Board of Regents.  This much common sense seems to confuse many of our Government agencies.

If it were not for the tradesmen in the trenches, completing the work and correcting the mistakes of Engineers and Architects, our economy would collapse.  Just lift the hood on a 2012 Silverado and see if you can make sense of any of it. I certainly can not.

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on February 1, 2014 at 9:17pm

Thanks all of your for your thoughtful comments (keep em coming). I was "plunging" a stopped up tub the other day and it made me think of this discussion. If the problem persisted, I'd have no problem calling a plumber. I might not hang out in the same places or interact socially with the guy (or woman), but the pain of an overflowing tub would motivate me to invite that person into my home, and I would pay that person for fixing my problem.

We all seek pleasure and avoid pain; we all rejoice and we all suffer. That's pretty basic. You make a good point about that Tom. And Leslie, I agree that we need a little more pain in the budget's of homeowners. I've heard of conservative and liberal leaders who support the concept of a carbon tax. Most of us are pretty distant from the pain that our consumption of energy contributes to, the pain of the plants, animals and vulnerable peoples who are already suffering from the instability and violence of climate change. A carbon tax could bring it home to people and let us se that it's all of our problem.

Comment by Tom White on February 1, 2014 at 1:24pm

Jim, thanks for your post.  I often feel the same way when working on my own house.  Spending too much time looking for the right tool or learning from mistakes about choosing the proper tool or materials for the job.  This DIY experience gives me more appreciation for the craftsmanship and cost of the pros.  

I think that one of the reasons the home performance industry has not reached its potential is that homeowners in general don't want to get their hands dirty fixing or maintaining their homes, so they lack the appreciation of skilled craftsmanship and an understanding of the dirty grunt work it takes to get the jobs done.  As a result they also lack an understanding of how their homes work, and instead focus on replacing the cosmetic surfaces that are readily apparent--new counters, bathrooms, floors, doors, etc.  

Consequently one of the ways that the home performance industry could reach its potential is to market solutions to homeowners' typical problems:  cold floors, foggy bathrooms, drafty rooms, lingering kitchen odors.  These problems are not due to their energy costs, and as Leslie states, energy savings is not a prime motivator for fixing these problems.   So when it comes to marketing home performance let's focus instead on the problems homeowners want to solve!

Comment by Chris Stratton on January 31, 2014 at 3:21pm

Jim, thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post, as always. I’m with Leslie as to the underlying reasons why the HP industry has yet to take off: the price of energy (and carbon emissions) is too low. There are lots of “dirty jobs” industries that are doing quite well right now, so I don’t think it’s due to the lack of respect for people who work with their hands. Though, I do think you’re right about our cultural assumptions regarding manual workers and their education level, intelligence, and deserved level of esteem. And I do think there is great value in working with one’s hands and the satisfaction of knowing at the end of the day that you’ve built something undeniably tangible, as Courtney described. In addition, I think there are some (very important) skills and concepts that we can only really understand by experiencing them in the physical world. This notion is discussed eloquently in books like “Shopclass as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford and much earlier by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I think this process is in the iterative learning between the head and the hands, in the reinforced connections between the two, and in the endless honing of the theoretical with the implacably concrete. This kind of invaluable experience-based knowledge and intuition is requisite in the trades, and especially in HP.  

Comment by Courtney Moriarta on January 31, 2014 at 1:21pm

I'm with you Jim.  My friends from college had a hard time wrapping their heads around why I took the "blue collar" job I had as an energy auditor and air sealer after college.  I had two degrees from MIT, after all.  I'd show up for after-work get togethers covered in fiberglass, foam, caulk and what-have-you while they emerged from their computers and cubicles.  What they didn't understand is that I was coming home knowing I'd accomplished something tangible, helping people, while learning more in the process.  They couldn't say the same after 8 hours of writing C++ code.  I may have been dirty and sweaty, but I wouldn't trade that learning experience for both of my degrees.  It has served me well both professionally and as a member of the human race.

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