Making Carpentry Noble: Walpole Builders Team With French Guild

Jul 12, 2012

This week a home-building company in Walpole New Hampshire is playing host to 21 carpentry French apprentices, who in two days are building a replica of Thoreau’s Walden Pond Cabin. The exchange program hopes to do more than teach kids how to swing a hammer; It's just one way these builders are working to blend the old and the new.

Just north of Keene, Walpole New Hampshire is a quiet, unassuming spot. Though, quiet can be a relative term when the hammers and saws at Bensonwood Homes get going.

Bensonwood is a company that builds custom, prefabricated houses. Today, the floor of their workshop is packed with a crowd of construction workers who are not from around here.

Bony: Julien et Maxim, [Julien et Maxim Tu viens de ou?] Darwin

Twenty-one French carpentry students bustle around, some chiseling out joints for timber-framed rafters, others putting together wall or roof panels. They’re making a replica of Thoreau’s Walden pond cabin; not for any special connection that the French have with American transcendentalism, but because the cabin was 10' x 15', and can be finished in two days.

Kevin Stowell, who works at Bensonwood says the language barrier has been tough, but the French kids, aren’t like American teenagers.

Stowell: Typically you’d have them being the grunt guys, get me a bundle of shingles, sweep the floor, go to the truck get me this, these guys actually seem like they could be hands on with you, runnin’ the nail guns, tape measure all that.

There’s a reason for that. These apprentices, the youngest of whom is fourteen and the oldest is twenty-one, are part of an ancient French Guild of craftsman called the compagnons, which began in the 13th century.

And a few years ago, Dennis Marcom a timberframer from Bensonwood got a good look at some of the compagnon’s history.

Marcom: I had the pleasure of crawling around the attics of the cathedrals with Boris and other compagnon’s and these are the guys who made the cathedrals. It was a privilege.

And here’s the Boris that he mentioned.

Noel: So I’m Boris Noel, I’m a compagnon charpantier we say in France.

He says, the compagnon system is pretty tough; it takes about two years of apprenticeship, five years of traveling internships, and then a masterwork that is checked by a full compagnon to complete the training.

Noel: Yeah it takes a long time and it’s not just about learning a craft but it’s also about making a travel experience and experience yourself in different situations different places.

Compare that to the American system, where as often as not, if your cousin is a contractor you can slap on a tool belt and call yourself a builder.

But Noel says the French way has its downsides.

Noel: With us it’s all tradition, we learn a way to do things and we repeat it the way we have been taught. Here you are constantly looking for how you can do it different or better.

Marcom: But I would add that both approaches are two-edge swords, if you rely on tradition you don’t do anything new, if you only do something new you don’t have any foundation to grow from.

That mixing of the old and the new is embodied by a massive machine on Bensonwood’s workshop floor.

It’s a computer controlled timber-framing machine that can saw a rafter that would take hours to cut by hand in minutes, and handle enormous fifty foot long timbers.

Bensonwood makes timberframe homes that feel artisanal, but with frames that are carved by machines, and walls and roof panels that are put together in a workshop. The whole ensemble is then trucked to the homesite and assembled in a matter of a few weeks.

Prefab homes don’t have a particularly good reputation. But a report by market research firm Global Industry Analysts notes the design of these homes has gotten a lot better over the past ten years, and if consumers catch on, it’s an industry that could see some serious growth.

Dennis Marcom says assembling homes in a workshop just helps them do the work faster and better, the quality is up to the builders. He says, it’s just like when you buy a car they don’t ship the parts to your house and put it together in your driveway, they build it in a factory.

Marcom: To us it’s a wave of the future, perhaps not the only one but certainly a wave.

And the Frenchmen like Marc Rabuteau, members of a centuries old builders’ guild, are certainly impressed.

Rabuteau: It’s more speed! It’s more speed!

So, sacrificing quality for speed might actually be a false trade-off, and bringing the tradition of craftsmanship to prefab homes could be just what the American home building profession needs.

He says when he was in France the owner of a famous chateau gave him an exclusive tour of the building, just because he was a carpenter.

Marcom: He had a respect for people who do the work, that we’re lacking in this country. I think that there’s an understanding within our company that this a noble profession.

The partnership with the compagnons is part of that.