In the late 1990s, a stop-motion British cartoon called Bob the Builder debuted on the BBC. It had a catchy theme song with the titular character’s name cheerily sung, followed by short, staccato statements.
“Bob the Builder, can we fix it? Bob the Builder, yes, we can!”
Bob the Builder was round-faced and smiling, with short legs and a teardrop nose. His toolbelt was as wide as his waist, his hardhat as big as his head. What else would he wear but overalls, a checked shirt, and thick-soled boots? A carpenter’s uniform, or so kids were led to believe.
He had friends like Scoop (a googly-eyed backhoe), Muck (a fire engine-red dump truck), and Dizzy (a diminutive concrete spinner). They all traveled around a primary-color, basic-shapes landscape, building and dancing and playing.
The show is lighthearted and safe, and the premise is appealing: Work with your hands, find friends, make things that serve basic human needs. But construction as a living is hard—not exactly as depicted by the cartoon contractor. It’s messy, unpredictable, and, with the ever-present possibility of nails in fingers or falls from steep grades, sometimes pretty dangerous. I know because my dad is a real Bob, and a real builder.
Bob has been building and remodeling homes for 40 years, often six and seven days a week, all while teaching college and high school students how to do it, too, in a small city in southern Indiana. The cycle of education is always the same. The first year, students learn the basics: electrical, plumbing, concrete and masonry, framing, mechanical systems. The second year, under the supervision of a teacher like my dad, they build a house, one that someone will eventually go on to live in. His students built the house in which I grew up. Most of the walls are straight. (Kidding! Sorry, Dad.)
I don’t remember who gave it to him, but my dad has had a life-size cardboard cutout of Bob the Builder in his office for years. The comparison was always funny to me, because my dad couldn’t have been further from a stocky, bald foreman: He was tall and athletic, with a mess of dark, curly hair, a bushy mustache, and crystal-blue eyes. Looking back, he had more of an air of scruffy architect than brawny construction worker.
He did initially want to be an architect, but he didn’t get into the program at Ball State in 1977, and enrolled in the construction technology program at Vincennes University instead. I didn’t get into my first choice of grad school, either—which, in retrospect, shifted my entire career path, too. When I began writing Curbed’s House Calls column, I started thinking more deeply about the relationship between architect and contractor, which is similar to that between chef and cook—one gets a majority of the praise, but the other is essential to the process. Most architects and designers I speak with are adamant about crediting collaborators in everything from general construction and plaster to woodwork and tile. But those people are often left out of stories about buildings. They are seen as a means to an end.
I don’t think architecture would have suited my dad all that well. Being a teacher, behind the scenes, is where he flourishes, both with students and with me. It was on building sites with him that I learned to love the smell of sawdust, to use a sander, and to operate a jointer. These were the settings in which we connected best, when I understood him most, and where he taught me not just practical skills, but how to behave in the world, as I watched him give constructive feedback to students and receive it gracefully.
My childhood was spent in woodshops, on job sites, and in unfinished houses in the middle of winter. Together we went to electrical supply stores, lumberyards, and plumbing departments; we drew on a wall and then knocked it down in the house I grew up in, revealing our new addition; we built a second-floor deck for my mom over one weekend to surprise her for her birthday. I didn’t know what Ikea was until I arrived at college, because my dad made everything I owned. It’s no wonder I ended up writing about the ways we live at home, what we surround ourselves with in those spaces, and how interiors can connect us to ourselves and others. (And even though it shouldn’t be, it is a little jarring when we begin to emulate our parents, whether the ways we do so are joyful or cringe-worthy. In my case, it’s writing about the very thing my dad has spent his life doing.)
Even though so much of my youth was spent observing my dad at work, I don’t think I understood the energy, problem solving, and creative thinking that went into his profession until he and I began jointly renovating a bathroom, kitchen, and dining room in my husband’s and my circa-1920s bungalow. The experience has been illuminating and humbling, and not just because I’ve learned how to lay flooring and move light switches.
Seeing my dad working on my own home, I couldn’t believe his agility while ripping out a tub, or how quickly he discerned that we needed a different strategy when it came to the tile for our shower’s built-in shelves or bottom barrier. His on-the-fly complex math skills and steady hand while free-style cutting through walls astounded me. I marveled at his precision in caulking, his wherewithal to hook up a faucet while upside down, and his ability to find imperfectly situated studs.
We don’t always get the opportunity to better understand our parents as we age, and it can be rare to come out the other side with even more respect. Renovating an old house can break relationships, but in our case, the process made clear the things I hadn’t seen growing up.
Samantha Weiss Hills is a writer and editor who has spent the past three years in Bloomington, Indiana. She is the former contributing editor for the House Calls column at Curbed. Her work has also appeared in Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Eater, Food52, Wine Enthusiast, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @thereforesamiam.