I WAS RECENTLY A GUEST ON MIXED MENTAL ARTS' PODCAST WITH BRYAN CALLEN AND HUNTER MAATS. OVER THE COURSE OF AN HOUR, I SHARED MY THOUGHTS ON THE "IKIGAI" WAY, HOW IT TRANSFORMED MY CAREER, AND HOW IT CAN BE USED AS A RESOURCE FOR THOSE WANTING TO BREAK INTO THE TRADES.
LISTEN here FOR MORE INSIGHTS AND WISDOM.
I'm a Master Stonesmith and I design and build stone works using the ancient Dry Stone method. In 2016, a client asked me to look at a new mountain home in Truckee, California. In the course of meeting together, we crafted the notion of a massive outdoor stone, landscape, and art project that reflected some specific aesthetics -- "mountainous, minimalist, contemporary, yet warm".
I formed a Collaboration of Craftsmen for this project under the standards and timeline laid out by the client. He wanted everyone involved to deliver a "world-class" experience and complete the project by end of the Fall season of 2017. So, I faced the biggest challenge in my 12-year career: How to design and build at the scale required while using only the Dry Stone method and all this within a very, very short period of time.
So, with the help of my stone importer Jared, owner of Arris Stoneworks, I designed all of the stone works in a way that would both achieve the aesthetic and functional criteria and be "modular", allowing a great deal of flexibility in the field. Essentially, this was a giant "Lego-style" stone project. In fact, all of the hardscape components of this project, from the bronze planter boxes to the stone sculptures, were pre-built off-site by all of the craftsmen and then transported to the site and installed by them. For my part, all of the stone walls, patios, risers, landings, driveway planks and sculptures were quarried, cut, shaped and textured in Southern China. All of the 31 different fabrications of stone were rectilinear in shape and cut about an average of 15% longer or thicker than our designs showed. This allowed us to make cuts in the field and have a great degree of flexibility to make it all fit together.
Now, I had a plan and a complete solution or so I thought until my stone importer started giving me the weights of my finished stone pieces. The wall stone planks would weigh an average of 810 pounds, the driveway and walkway planks around 270 pounds and some of the landing stones would weigh over 2,400 pounds. I also set a standard with my crew to butt-fit the 1 ton plus landing stones together with a 1/32" tolerance, the wall planks at a 1/16" tolerance and the entryway planks with a 1/16" heavy tolerance.
We would have plenty of heavy equipment on site, but we needed a way to lift every single piece of stone on this project from the top and we had to be able to set it down in very tight places over and over again. We had ordered somewhere near a million pounds (500 tons) of stone. Furthermore, I'd never designed nor built a project this big before nor in this way. I found Anver through a Google search and after a few discussions with their sales rep I ordered two different powered vacuum lifts that would fit the minimum top profiles of our stone. Plus, the lifters had to work with rough surfaces since all my stone was made with three different textures.
While, we are still working on this project I'm truly blown-away by how these Anver vacuum lifts work and incredible stone work we've installed thus far. Only photos and videos can really describe the outcome, but here's what I will say: My team has achieved something one-of-a-kind and spectacular with this project that would be absolutely impossible without both heavy equipment and Anver vacuum lifters. Every piece has been lifted and set in a downward manner.
My stone importer called me the other day after looking at our photos and videos on my business Instagram (jonaguilar_designworks) and Facebook (Heritage Earth & Stone) accounts. Here's what he wrote:
"By the way dude, you have the most automated process now of anything I’ve seen. Good on you. That’s a huge advantage, and you should continue to think this way. Guys are literally breaking their backs humping stone every day, and unfortunately they are not thinking of it the way you are. And that’s slow compared to how you are doing installation, so there is a considerable advantage and cost savings there. This is the future of masonry if masonry is going to continue to exist in this country."
From my experience using Anver's vacuum lifters, I am now starting to envision a new future, a new way, a new opportunity for us to design and build extraordinarily high-end stone projects using the dry stone method while dramatically reducing labor costs and also shortening the timelines.
It's a new way of doing stonework in the 21st century.
The first time I touched a Trow & Holden tool was in 2008 when I attended a dry stone workshop in Washington. Randy was there showcasing their tools. Our group was building a dry stone bridge and he showed me how to use a Mason's Chipper to dress the face of the Wisconsin limestone pieces. I was just a few years into the dry stone world at that time and had little knowledge of the tools. So, when he showed me what a carbide-tipped chisel could do my eyes were suddenly opened to what was possible in this trade. Up until this point I understood the craft only in my head from reading books and had very little hands-on experience other than building walkways and patios.
Now, 9 years later, I own about half of their masonry tools. I've "dressed" beautiful arrises on Wisconsin limestone; roughed out huge blocks of Western Colorado sandstone; shaped Southwestern Colorado quartzitic sandstone for curved walls; and currently we're detailing hundreds of planks of Chinese basalt so that our walls "sing to the eye".
While we generally use their tools in the way and for the purpose for which they were designed, I've also innovated new purposes for them with great results. For our two projects built in 2016 we split, shaped, tooled and finished approximately 75 tons of stone (sandstone and granite) from raw rock harvested directly from quarries. We used Shims and Wedges to make curved capstones. We used the Quarry Buster to split 400-pound pieces into 200-pound cornerstones. We used the Hand Set to shape out these pieces and and a Mason's Chipper to make crisp arrises. To make the "pineapple" textures on our Moongate transition stone we used their Hand Point. Lastly, we used the Bush Hammer to texture the stone faces on our end/corner pieces.
We work our tools very hard and push them to their max especially with the tons of basalt we are working with right now on our project in California. So, I regularly send all of my tools back to Trow & Holden to get sharpened or repaired. For me, there's absolutely nothing more satisfying than taking a piece of raw rock and turning it into a fine piece of stone that will last for eternity. To do this, you must have the right tools and we trust Trow & Holden.
The only way to make a blog about a Kenco Mult-Lifter interesting is to be honest and a little, necessarily, self-effacing.
Last year, I landed the biggest project in my career thus far as a Stonesmith with a 7-figure budget. Due to a lot of weird and surprising constraints I had to get super creative about my approach in order to build on the scale and in the timeline desired by the client while still adhering to the "dry stone" method that I specialize in for all my works. But, this one had a new twist: The client wanted a modern, minimalist, mountain theme, which would require large, square and rectangular shaped pieces.
With these parameters in mind, my stone importer (based in Seattle) and I came up with an approach that combined a "Lego-like" building method with the flexibility of a "modular" design. The stone pieces ranged in weight from 200 to 2,000 pounds. (Now, keep in mind that most of the stone I've used over the years can be moved with a dolly, two men and some rock bars.) So, I ordered approximately 750,000 pounds of basalt and granite stone and had it shipped over from the quarries in Southern China. Then, I never thought twice about it because I was also the Project Director and had a hundred other tasks to focus on right away. In the back of mind I figured I'd just use skidsteer machines, 2x4 wood runners and pipe. If you look at photos and videos of the project thus far and the size of the stone we are moving around this is really embarrassing considering that my wall planks alone average 810 pounds each. But, I simply had no schema in my brain for anything like this.
By about the third day of installation I started panicking inside when I realized I'd not done my due diligence with planning and figuring how we were going to efficiently move hundreds of tons of stone around on a very, very tight schedule. A couple of the guys started drilling 2 holes in each 6' long, 810 pound wall plank, inserted eye bolts and lifted them with straps. It worked! My first impression was that this would be the answer and I was happy. Certainly, a lot faster than pushing these pieces around with rock bars. Then, I did some calculations based on how many wall planks we were actually installing each day with this method and I panicked again.
The owner of the landscape design company that was collaborating with me on this project suggested I look into buying a lifting device he found online and he showed me a photo of Kenco's Multi-lifter. Once I looked at this I realized a miracle was about to happen. I called Jessica at Kenco that same day and ordered 2 of them. We were all honestly blown away by how these lifting devices worked and how much stone they could hold and lift. We've been using them every day now for nearly 2-1/2 months. We've attached them to excavators and sky tracks. We've lifted pieces ranging from 200 to 1,400 pounds with both smooth and rough faces.
Today, if I start thinking about what we would have done (or not done) had we not discovered Kenco's Multi-lifters I feel nauseous inside. Along with some different compression driven vacuum lifters we purchased, Kenco's Multi-lifters are such a game-changer for us now that we already see new possibilities for future stone projects where we can scale up the weight, size and shape of the stone we use.
I am HUGE fan of Jason Silva (a young, brilliant philosopher-futurist) and his short films called "Shots of Awe" that he posts on YouTube.
He describes in words what runs through my mind all the time as a stonesmith-designer-builder of experiences for humans. My new project will be my greatest challenge thus far and will require that I move through many "dips" that Seth Godin discusses in his book aptly titled "The Dip". I now speak with complete honesty, candor and rawness to new clients about what I envision in my imagination and feel in my heart about their projects.
For this massive project with a very, very large budget for a wealthy client I wrote a letter to him and his wife using a white gel pen on black paper describing my vision. Then, I sent him this link to watch. It's a new way of engaging clients for me that is very authentic too.
Watch this very short film by Jason Silva "Seeking the Aesthetic Experience" (CLICK ON THE TITLE) as it so clearly articulates my goal with this forthcoming project in Truckee, California with all the members of my new Consortium called The Throughstone Group.
Quartzitic sandstone that yielded to our steel tools and desires.Read More
THOSE OF US WHO ARE HARD-WORKING, PASSION-DRIVEN DRYSTONE MASONS/WALLERS OR CRAFTSMEN PLY AWAY AT OUR VARIOUS TRADES BECAUSE WE LOVE WHAT WE DO... PERIOD! I DON'T KNOW ANY GREAT ONES WHO LIVE EXTRAVAGANTLY RICH LIVES. IN FACT, A LIFE IN PURSUIT OF LEISURE ONLY AND ENDLESS CONSUMPTION IS WHAT WE ARE ACTUALLY DISINTERESTED IN FOR OURSELVES. RATHER, WE TAKE IMMENSE PRIDE IN THE PURSUIT OF MORE CHALLENGING PROJECTS AND BUILDING THINGS THAT WILL LAST FOR GENERATIONS.
I KNOW A LOT OF CRAFTSMEN RANGING FROM DRYSTONE WALLERS TO BLACKSMITHS AND FROM CANVAS SEWERS TO WOODWORKERS. ONE COMMON COMPLAINT (AND OUR GREATEST CHALLENGE) IS THE LEVEL OF IGNORANCE THAT PREVAILS ACROSS THE COUNTRY ABOUT THESE TRADES AND WHAT THEY MEAN FOR THE ENERGY DYNAMIC THEY CAN BRING TO HOMES AND SPACES.
BEYOND THE IGNORANCE IS THE LACK OF MONETARY VALUE SOME (NOT ALL) CUSTOMERS PLACE ON OUR SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE. FURTHERMORE, NOTHING - AND I MEAN NOTHING - IS WORSE THAN SECURING A CONTRACT TO BUILD A FEATURE FOR CLIENTS AND THEN, AS THE PROCESS BEGINS, TO DISCOVER THEY ARE "MONEY-RICH" (POOR IN CHARACTER, EMPATHY AND ABILITY TO RELATE TO MOST OF THE WORLD), ADULT HUMANS AFFLICTED WITH "AFFLUENZA". THEIR ENERGY DYNAMIC IS TO ATTEMPT TO DEVALUE OUR WORK BY TRYING TO DEMAND SHORTCUTS, COMPLAIN ABOUT HOURLY WAGES OR PRICING, AND SO ON. THEY ARE BLIND TO WHAT IS POSSIBLE AND TO THE CRITICAL ENERGY DYNAMIC BETWEEN THE CLIENT AND THE MASON.
SO, WE EITHER SUCK IT UP, FINISH THE PROJECT AND LEARN TO APPRECIATE THE APPRECIATIVE CUSTOMERS WHO LIVE OTHERWISE OR, SOMETIMES, WE SIMPLY HAVE TO CHOOSE TO WALK AWAY WHEN IT ALL BECOMES TOO TOXIC AND ENERGY-DRAINING AND LEARN TO LISTEN TO THE LITTLE VOICE IN OUR HEADS THAT TELLS US WHEN TO SAY "NO" TO A POSSIBLE PROJECT EVEN WHEN WE DESPERATELY NEED THE MONEY TO TAKE CARE OF OUR FAMILIES.
I love using Facebook as a "tool" for connecting with other stone masons and earthen builders. I connected with a stone mason in Turkey via a stone mason in South Carolina. The mason in Turkey posted this link of a stone mason named Marc Archambault in Asheville, North Carolina.
This cabin he and his team built is one of those maybe-once-in-a-lifetime projects. His story is great and shows his gratitude and humbleness of being hired to do this work for someone. All homes should have this kind of energy associated with their construction.
THE PURPOSE OF MY BUSINESS CONTINUES TO EVOLVE.
NOW, MY INTENTION IS TO DESIGN AND BUILD EXPERIENCE AND SPACES, FROM EARTHEN-BASED MATERIALS, THAT CULTIVATE CONNECTION WITH OURSELVES, WITH OTHERS & WITH NATURE. (I BELIEVE THAT THE LACK OF CONNECTION WITHIN OUR SPECIES IS THE GREATEST DESTRUCTIVE FORCE WE FACE. THUS, WHAT I CAN OFFER, IN TERMS OF A SOLUTION, IS TO CREATE EXPERIENCES AND SPACES THAT ALLOW FOR CONNECTION TO HAPPEN.)
EARTH: IN 2015, I AM SETTING OUT ON A NEW JOURNEY TO LEARN ABOUT OTHER MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES SUCH AS EARTHEN PLASTERS, RAMMED EARTH, COB, AND MUCH MORE. I DO THIS SO THAT I CAN BEGAN DESIGNING AND BUILDING HUMAN HABITATS, OUTLYING STRUCTURES, A NEW LINE OF "LOUNGES" I'VE CREATED IN MY MIND, MEDITATION SPACES AND MORE.
STONE: WE SPECIALIZE IN PROVIDING CLIENTS A UNIQUE CAPABILITY TO SOURCE RAW ROCK OR STONE; TO CUT AND SHAPE IT ON-SITE OR TO IMPORT STONE WITH CUSTOM SHAPES, SIZES, TEXTURES AND FINISHES; TO TRANSPORT IT ANYWHERE; AND TO DESIGN AND BUILD STONE STRUCTURES, SPACES OR PROJECTS OF PERMANENCE AND BEAUTY.
(The image I added is a rammed earth structure and is indicative of what I desire to soon be building.)
Great article, but also DISTURBING in the sense that this is labeled as a "growing movement" simply because the human species has become so fucking domesticated.
On the bright side this aligns with the aim of my business of building with earthen materials and stone: "Design & Build Experiences that Connect People with Themselves, Others & Nature".
This year I'm E-X-P-A-N-D-I-N-G by starting down a short-long path of learning to build with Rammed Earth (the most beautiful natural building method in the world, in my opinion), Earth Bag, Earth Plaster, Gabion Basket structures, Straw Bale, Cob, etc. all whilst integrating my dry stone work.
I must blow people's minds and my own with what I envision and build. So many ideas are "trapped" in the recesses of my brain and MUST be unleashed into the physical realm or I will go "loco".
CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL ARTICLE:
In his article "Creativity vs. Quants" (New York Times, March 21, 2014) Timothy Egan perfectly describes the creative types in our world and their process:
"An original work, an aha! product or a fresh insight is rarely the result of precise calculation at one end producing genius at the other. You need messiness and magic, serendipity and insanity. Creativity comes from time off, and time out."
(click here to read full article:) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/22/opinion/egan-creativity-vs-quants.html?_r=0
I use his description to better communicate to clients that I'm NOT a contractor, but rather I'm a craftsman, an artisan. Nor can I usually be accurate on when I can finish building the project because each one is always something unique to the customer.
When it comes to placing a price on the project I talk about "value" and also that each customer is kind of a modern-day "benefactor" or "patron" that can choose to pay me an amount of money that allows me to continue in my trade; be around for the next customer; and have a little down time in between projects to learn something new, experiment and grow.
This is going to be awesome to watch!
This is an extremely powerful creative urge or more like a very, very deep yearning to create something beautiful. after 25 years, he still loves it.
(Click on the VIMEO link below to watch the trailer.)
I've been regularly watching Jason Silva's short form video series "Shots of Awe". One of my favorites is the one titled "Engineering Our Own Divinity" and it completely expresses my sentiments about the new direction I want to move in with my design-build business as it undergoes transformations this year. In this short video he quotes Steven Johnson: "Our thoughts shape our spaces... our spaces return the favor... they inform, shape and sculpt our subjective experiences. We script intention into our design." Therefore, Jason concludes, we can engineer our own divinity!
Pretty rad, huh?
Around 2003, some friends showed me a book about Dan Snow's stone projects (click on his name). A few years ago I was looking at his website once again and saw a stone firepit bowl he built with some choice field stone. I tried in vain for a handful of work seasons to find a client who wanted to pay me to build my own version. This past Spring I decided to wait no longer and so I started to harvest stone from the sides of three county roads around here. Then, I began to build my own version a couple of evenings a week. The stone was pretty poor for the curves and sizes I wanted/needed and I ended up tooling much more than I anticipated, but I finally finished last week. This is phase one of an outdoor cooking space I'm building out back.
In France, this fantastic 13th-century Castle-building (click here) project is still ongoing. I believe it's in it's 16th year of construction now. Basically, it's an amalgamation of building, science, tourism and "super cool idea". The builders use 13th-century building techniques, tools and methods. Tourists pay to watch the construction in action. Their money enables this project to continue. (Note to wife: I believe I can apply to get on the building crew. Just need to learn basic French. Not a problem!)
Here is a beautifully written article by Alice Rawsthorn for the New York Times about dry stone walls.
I'm still waiting for a customer to ask me to build a dry stone wall hundreds of feet long and about 6' tall!
On the property we are renting north of Durango, I've been working to bring out the trees' best architecture and potential. With some of the cut branches of the Elms, Willows, Cottonwoods and Aspens, I built a Dog Den for our Norwegian Elkhound - Oshe.
When it comes to explaining the history and tradition of "dry stone" anything there are many others more prolific than I am; and there are dozens of locations on our planet where the conversation could begin.
So, I'm going to skip that for now and move along on a tangent and briefly write something about creating "awe" in your life through dry stone works.
Whether it be a simple or complex project (such as the one in the photo below) a properly-built dry stone project is GUARANTEED to create a sense of "awe"!
In moments of "awe" the mind becomes still... and in today's world we all need a lot more "awe" to access this stillness. Everyday, I believe.
So, I think, why can't I or we have awe every day?
You can. I can. One way is to connect with a real dry stone mason and pay him/her to build you something... and please be patient! It is a process.
(See the photo of a project by Andrew Loudon - http://www.drystone-walling.co.uk/ - for your own mini-awe-moment!)