Tracy Kidder has already won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book, The Soul of a New Machine (1982). A new prize will have to be invented to recognize the greater achievement of House, a fascinating multilevel account of that most fundamental and most complex of human activities, the construction of a family’s dwelling.
House opens with a surveyor marking the site for a house to be built for Jonathan and Judith Souweine near Amherst, Massachusetts. It closes with an epilogue noting that the design for the house has won for its architect, William Rawn, a prestigious prize from the Boston Society of Architects, and that both Souweines and Jim Locke, one of the builders, were present at the awards ceremony. Between these events, Kidder tells the complex and surprisingly suspenseful story of exactly what goes into the building of a house: the materials, the hard work, the ideas, the conflicts, the money.
There is considerable factual detail in House: A two-story house of average size will require seventy-five thousand nails; the notation “S Dry S4S” on a piece of spruce balsam fir means that it is “surface dry” (less than 20 percent water content) and has been planed smooth on all four sides. In a fine sequence, Kidder juxtaposes Henry David Thoreau’s famous brief list of the materials and costs of his cabin at Walden with an incredibly long and detailed list of the various materials that go into the Souweine house; Thoreau’s injunction to “simplify, simplify” can no longer be applied to house building. There are also detailed descriptions of the problems of building a stairway that has two landings and, even worse, the attendant problems of constructing satisfactory newel posts and a bannister. Kidder provides relevant historical material concerning the lumber industry, fashions in the design of houses (the Souweines’ is in the recently popular Greek Revival style), and the history of building contracts, especially the legal ramifications of the standard contractual phrase “in a workmanlike manner.”
The center of interest, however, is the entire process of building, in which the personalities involved are more important than the materials. Kidder, whether by good luck or by careful planning, found an unusual and interesting group of people to work with, and he wisely focuses his attention on them. The Souweines are alumni of the counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jonathan had been politically involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement; more recently he worked for a Ralph Nader-type public interest organization, and, after moving to Amherst, ran for district attorney, winning a surprising primary victory but losing the general election. Now he is an increasingly successful lawyer. He remains socially concerned, but he can be very tough in his bargaining with the men who are building his house. Judith has her doctorate degree and a teaching job, represents her teachers’ union in negotiations, and hopes to be a representative at the Amherst Town Meeting. Kidder’s early description of them holds true: “They have a fine, sturdy marriage, which is more than a marriage. It is an enterprise. They make a formidable combination. They are decisive. They know their own minds. And they knew what they wanted in a house.”
What they wanted in a house is provided, in part, by the architect, Bill Rawn. Always fascinated by building, he first earned a law degree, then ignored the law and had considerable success as a graphic artist before entering state government at a high level. He gave up art and government to attend architecture school and had a meteoric career with a large firm before leaving to set up his own office. The Souweine house is his first independent project. Rawn wants to provide a livable house for the Souweines, who have been his friends for many years, but he also wants the house to be a work of art, and the two desires do not always mesh. Because he works out of Boston and takes on other jobs while this house is being built, he does not always get detailed plans and specifications to the builders on time, and he is not always pleased with modifications they make. As Kidder observes, “The relationship between an architect and builders can explore the limits of sympathy in sympathetic people. It is not in either party’s interest to understand the other one’s too well.”
The builders are Apple Corps, a cooperative of four men who share the work and the profits equally. On each of their jobs, one man acts as contractor, making estimates, drawing up lists of materials, providing schedules, handling negotiations with the architect and the clients. Jim Locke has these responsibilities on the Souweines’ house. His choice of physical labor for a career...