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 A. Tamasin Sterner on January 31, 2014 at 11:11am

The crusty Dutch man you worked with made me think of Groundskeeper Willie in The Simpsons.  Anyway, being one of those people who used to work more with my body in crawlspaces and attics, I agree with you - to some extent.  Many people treated me with deep respect for having the courage to go into those yukky places - and bring back photos to share the experience.  Personally, I have deep respect for weatherization and home performance technicians who 'crawl the extra mile' to do the job right - the first time.  Back in 2007, I presented a 4 hour session at ACI called Safe and Effective:  Winning Strategies for Field Workers.  In that session, I shared some important results from a survey conducted with weatherization workers regarding what they were afraid of, concerned with, and how they deal with barriers.  The need for protecting themselves, and solid and reasonable standards surfaced as action items to improve the industry.  That study is on DOE's waptac.org website.  My hat is off to those who crawl, duck-walk, belly-slither, slide, and pray that the flashlight batteries hold!

Comment by Building Performance Institute on January 31, 2014 at 10:04am

I hear what you're saying Jim; I do think there is often a condescension when dealing with tradesman and others who do manual labor. But I'm not sure that would be a reason that the HP industry hasn't reached its potential. I know for sure that my neighbors are so grateful when they have highly skilled tradesman helping them. But first they must perceive a need for the help. I still think the reason the HP industry is having trouble  comes down to price per Kwh on our utility meters. The price of energy, although climbing, is still too low in the US, and most homeowners still find what they're paying on their utility bills is not a significant concern to them. Oil, natural gas, coal etc is much more expensive in Europe, and thus you see home performance is taken very seriously there.

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