The Forgotten

by | Jun 17, 2024

The forgotten,


“In reality, Charlie was the “architect” of the present Berkshire, and I acted as the “general contractor” to carry out the day-by-day construction of his vision.

In the physical world, great buildings are linked to their architect while those who had poured the concrete or installed the windows are soon forgotten. Berkshire has become a great company. Though I have long been in charge of the construction crew; Charlie should forever be credited with being the architect.

Charlie never sought to take credit for his role as creator but instead let me take the bows and receive the accolades.” (Berkshire Hathaway Annual Letter May 2024 (pg2))

That was Warren Buffet remembering his long-term business partner Charlie Munger in the opening pages of the renowned Berkshire Hathaway’s annual letter to its investors. Those words stood out to me because for the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about building construction. I have had the opportunity to observe closely a large scale high rise building development and my own extensive building renovation (hence why I haven’t written much lately). And I’ve been wondering why constructors receive little credit for or are forgotten creators of buildings?

The privilege of observation

When we moved into our current apartment we saw that there was a plot of land earmarked for a multi-storied work and living complex, right across from the complex. No one could say for certain when construction was going to commence. We were worried about the potential noise and disruption but the building management company assured us that it would be fine and that the building has triple glazed windows. We were sceptical so we asked for a get out clause to be included in  our rental contract.  When the construction on the land  started early last year, we didn’t feel like moving so we decided to wait and see what would happen. In no time, I realised what we dreaded turned out to be a blessing. I got to watch from the comfort of my home how tall buildings are built from scratch. In fact, I’d go as far as saying this is probably a once in a lifetime experience.

Every morning  (except Sunday) the first thing the cat and I see when we walk into the living room/kitchen are images and sounds of construction workers either already started working or getting ready to start. As the cat likes to be let out, we would both walk onto the balcony to take a closer look at what they are working on. We would then monitor their progress throughout the day from either the living room or kitchen or my work area. An entire wall of the apartment is made of glass and looks right into the work site so we can see everything going on there. I could tell what time of the day it was based on what they were doing. They are officially supposed to start at 7am (8am on Saturday) but we often see and hear them start before. They take a morning break between 10 and 10:30am, lunch a couple of hours later and end their day at 5pm but could go later if working on a task that had to be finished on that  day such as cementing a floor. I have gotten to learn about all types of equipment used at different stages of construction. I learnt that there were many varieties of excavators used to clear debris off land and dig based on the quantity, height and temperature of the rubble.  I had imagined that concrete is mixed on site in a gigantic static machine, but it turned out that wasn’t the case, they have concrete mixer trucks that deliver on demand freshly mixed concrete. My favourite equipment of all is the crane!

The ultimate helper

Before, I could identify a crane if I was required to, other than that I had never in my life given any thought to cranes. Then one day,  I watched the workmen fill in a deep sizable part of the foundation with steel bars and concrete and then build a protective  wall around it, next they added lego-like orange coloured pieces of steel structure, piled one on top of the other. They didn’t stop until the structure towered over the tallest buildings around which were about 12 stories. Next they added the trolley turntable and jibs (I had to ask the internet for the names of the parts). I realised they were building a crane.  Later in the day, I saw that the crane ’s trolley was moving with items attached at the end of the long cable attached to it and dropping them at specific locations on the site. That was the moment I became conscious of what cranes are used for.  I became infatuated. I wanted to know who or what was making it move? Is there a person that sits up there in that box in the middle of the trolley? How do they get up there? Do they sit there all day? Google told me there is a position called crane operator so it is a person that moves it. I really wanted to see that person and how they get up there everyday. It took me a few days to catch the operator going up the ladder. He looked just like any other construction worker with his yellow fluorescent  helmet and waistcoat clearly detectable as he climbed up ladder after ladder. I felt dizzy watching him while he looked steady. There was one difference between him and the other workers, he carried a backpack with him and in the front of his chest as he climbed up.  I imagined it was holding a flask of tea/coffee, water and some snacks. I also wondered if he had to climb down everything he wanted to go to the toilet. Or was there one in his cabin? Again the internet told me that some cranes do have their own toilets.  Two more tower cranes were installed, making a total of three at the site. I loved spotting what items the cranes were carrying, huge concrete blocks, steel bars and slabs and even tractors. The cranes were used to deliver all materials required for construction and even assist in completing tasks such as pouring fresh concrete. I understood why the cranes were installed at the very beginning once the land was clear and even before the foundation was sealed. They help reduce manual labour, improve safety since no need for heavy load carrying and speed up construction. I was surprised by how quickly the structure for each floor was completed–using blocks of concrete and steel delivered by the cranes, while the construction workers simply mounted them together and fixed into place.

One nagging question that I’ve been asking myself is why aren’t they more women construction workers? In the year plus that I have been watching this site, 6 days a week from my apartment and closer, when I walk past it, I have spotted only two women dressed in construction gear out of probably over a hundred men I’ve seen.  I used to think that women weren’t attracted to construction work because the work was physically demanding and there were safety fears. However, I no longer think this could be the reason having seen how cranes are used not just in big projects but also smaller ones (I’ve spotted cranes mobile cranes used on smaller housing construction projects) to reduce manual labour and increase safety. Is it then, a lack of exposure? I’ve found the work these guys do both interesting and valuable, they are creating something tangible that will provide shelter and work spaces for many and will last decades. This type of profession was not an option that was ever brought up to me while at school. I could be a doctor, lawyer, teacher and a designer but never a carpenter or plumber or electrician. I’m pretty sure that this is still the case with the younger generation of women.


The Forgotten


The other question I had was, watching how the construction staff work day in day out regardless of rain, sun, snow and wind (they did stop once because there was an orange  weather alert for dangerous winds), how much time do architects that are often credited for buildings spend on construction sites?

Not forgotten

I got the answer to this question with my own construction project.  Last year we bought an apartment that required a complete overhaul (literally everything had to be replaced except the outer walls). The architect we hired after about three visits and a couple of video calls pretty much disappeared. He left the interior designer holding the fort. Not even when the constructor needed to ask him some questions could he be found. We hired him not the interior designer, he brought her in on the project. She also mentioned a couple of times that she couldn’t get hold of him. I once bumped into him at the beach and expressed concern that the building quote came at way more than we had anticipated. He said he would look at it to see what could be done. He didn’t. I couldn’t rely on the interior designer either to take care of this as she was more interested in creating a beautiful space  than cost effectiveness. She once recommended we get rid of our recently purchased and loved sofa to replace it with one that she thought would look better in our new place. Of course I ignored her. It was the constructor that stepped in and advised on how to cut costs, after I had confirmed with others that  his original quote was reasonable for the amount of work. I wanted to install triple glazed windows. He advised against it, said it wasn’t necessary for the area. He recommended good quality double ones instead which saved us thousands. He also challenged the design decisions the interior designer made. For example, he didn’t understand why so many light fixtures were required given the space, nor her need for fancier and more expensive materials. Thankfully, he ultimately sourced materials from his usual suppliers.

I learnt very quickly that while the architect and the interior designer brought the vision, it was the constructor and his team that brought the realisation and stability to the project. The builder showed up whenever he said he would (with his notebook) and when required with an interpreter. When we started the project I couldn’t speak Portuguese and he couldn’t speak English. I now speak Portuguese well enough so I could communicate with him as I knew I couldn’t rely on the interior designer and architect. The work didn’t stop when I wasn’t around. In fact, I was mostly out of the country during the project. I was always surprised when I did visit the site that the work was progressing. I was glad that I listened to the advice of the person who introduced me to him that I didn’t need to pay the interior designer extra to monitor the construction.  Also important was that I never got any complaints from my neighbours. The last renovation I did (of a smaller scale), the builders made me fall out with my neighbours. The biggest surprise of all was when I moved into the apartment a couple of weeks before completion, while the builders went off to finish a more urgent project. He said I could use the time to see how the place felt and detect any issues. I spent a whole week looking for issues, but I couldn’t find any. Everything worked perfectly and nothing was out of place. When I shared with him my compliments and surprise, he simply replied: “Of course. I want everything to be good.”

When I first saw his quote for the job I baulked at the costs for bath installation. I had the opportunity to observe them doing the work on one of the bathrooms and I have now come to appreciate why it was the most expensive task on the quote. The combination of water supply and drain pipes, electricity, slippery surfaces all cramped into a small space makes for complex and demanding work. I couldn’t believe how time consuming it was installing tiles to create a wet room.

While I appreciate the vision the architect and interior designer brought, this project could have been done without their input but not without the builder’s. The builder made the project successful. Going back to Warren Buffet’s comment, I believe that the late Charlie Munger demonstrated great wisdom (and humility) to give credit where it is deserved– to the constructor.

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