An Introduction to Contractors
By Dan Maginn / Published by Dwell

Contractors fascinate me. They always have. They are fundamentally different from other people. They have their own language of sorts and their own curious customs and mannerisms, like Klingons, or French people. They have cool belts and cool stuff (multitools, wee little anodized flashlights, and other things that would be handy to have) fastened to their cool belts. They look different, and they smell different. They smell like work getting done.1 In this perhaps, contractors are not so much like French people.

Contractors think in numbers: in feet and inches. They are problem solvers. If you could have visual access to the chalkboards of their minds you’d see complex diagrams and critical path schedules projecting far into the future.2 They know stuff I want to know, like what a molly bolt is. I catch myself trying to impress them: Within minutes on a job site, I’m squinting and spitting and walking through mud puddles with a purposeful swagger, saying things like “At’ll do ’er.”3

Contractors are good with tools. They know how to store a power cord without getting it all Jackson Pollocky. They know how to use winches.4 And when they use their power cords and their tools and their winches, they wear fancy hats with stickers on them.

How to Talk to Contractors: Don’t get lost in building jargon when planning your latest project. Illustration by Blanca Gómez

Contractors aren’t afraid of pain. They are thoroughly unimpressed with the finger-smashing potential of powder-actuated fasteners and nail guns and 16-pound sledgehammers wielded by guys named Kenny. In this, they are like Klingons. And also like Robert Duvall, strolling on the beach in Apocalypse Now. They are a tough people—–the progeny of simi- larly tough people who built things for a living, who in turn were the offspring of other toughies far into the past, back to the days of guilds and beyond, when we all had Sonny Bono hair.

You should consider becoming fascinated by contractors. Houses and buildings and bridges don’t just magi- cally appear. They are painstakingly crafted from chunks of formerly lifeless material by this clan of work-smelling problem solvers who can read floor plans and who can build what they read. Without them, we wouldn’t have places, and that would suck.

  1. Like WD-40 and sawdust and Lectric Shave. My race—–the architects—–smells like hotel shampoo and that ozoney smell that wafts up when you fiddle around with the back of your computer.
  2. Currently on my mental chalkboard is a list of my favorite Popsicle flavors and a crude sketch of a scene in the opening credits of Deadwood, when you can see the side part of a boob for two seconds.
  3. Perhaps I need to see a doctor about this.
  4. If I attempted to use a winch, it would not go well. Within ten minutes, you’d be able to hear the faint weeerrrrooorrr of an ambulance in the distance.

Dan Maginn


Dan Maginn is an AIA-member architect who lives and carpools to work with his wife, Keri, in Kansas City. Although he and his partners at El Dorado Inc. are extremely interested in promoting sustainable design on all scales, he does not consider himself to be an "eco-warrior." Instead he prefers the term "eco-tainment specialist"

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