The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 4, 2010


Quality counts

The Carlisle School Building Committee (SBC) might look to the Gleason Library for inspiration as they hone plans for the upcoming school renovation and addition. The SBC will have to prioritize many educational and space needs as they try to design the best school $20 million will buy. Hopefully, they will seek durability and high-quality construction, even if that means forgoing a few things. The library isn’t the largest town library in the Commonwealth and it lacks extras like a café, but it is very well made and well maintained. It is highly functional, aesthetically appealing and heavily used by residents of all ages. Gleason is working on its second century and looking great.

In addition, the just completed restoration project is a good example of how to care for buildings so that they can survive centuries. Library officials first spent months assessing the condition of the building with the assistance of Architects Lerner, Ladds and Bartels. Alternative materials and restoration methods were thoroughly evaluated. Once these preparations were completed, the library requested funding for a comprehensive restoration, rather than partial or less-durable alternatives. The town supported that request.

During the restoration, the Trustees and Building Restoration Committee were mindful to avoid unnecessary expenses while maintaining quality, and were able to bring the project in significantly under budget. Amazingly, after the last couple of bills are paid, the Trustees expect to return well over $100,000 from the $775,000 appropriated for the project. The repairs passed the test presented by this spring’s heavy rainstorms and the library’s interior stayed dry while many homes in town were coping with wet basements and water damage.

It can be tempting to try to economize on quality during a construction project, but poor quality often costs as much or more in the long run. Town Hall is an example. According to “How did Town Hall get an “inadequate” HVAC system” (Mosquito, November 19, 2004) the heating, ventilating and cooling (HVAC) system was scaled back to keep the building project on budget when large amounts of ledge pushed up expenses. However, the HVAC never worked properly and less than ten years later, the town paid roughly $140,000 to upgrade it. Reports are mixed on whether the repairs were completely successful.

Would the old Spalding Building need a total replacement now if it had been better made? While even the best architects can’t foresee every change in educational requirements, still the mold, termites and leak-prone roof might possibly have been avoided through better design.

The School Building Committee and architects HMFH are now turning their attention to the detailed design work (see article, page 1). In the coming months they will face challenging work, sifting through a multitude of decisions and trade-offs. With luck they can sort through the competing needs and choose a high-quality design that will serve Carlisle’s children for many decades. ∆

A truly intriguing idea

Here’s an intriguing idea: No one – literally, no one – knows how to make a pencil. Or a light bulb. Or a potato peeler. Or any other simple, manufactured item, let alone complicated ones like automobiles or computers. The reason is that the knowledge necessary to produce such items does not reside in a single head but in the collective knowledge of the organized industrial world. To make a modern pencil, one has to know about finding suitable trees, felling them, drying them, cutting them; about finding or making graphite and clay and glue, about combining them in suitable proportions, about mining and refining metals and forming them into sleeves for the eraser, about rubber and paint, and methods for embossing, and on and on.

The insight arose in economics, and the observation about a pencil came from economist Leonard Reed. The whole business is laid out in an essay by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal for May 22-23. There he argues that this ability of mankind collectively to accumulate and pass on knowledge – both practical and cultural – accounts for the emergence of the human race as the dominant species on the planet. The key development that lifted our human ancestors out of a life hardly distinguishable from that of any foraging beast was aggregation into larger groups where any good idea could be quickly adopted by other members of the group. Trade among different groups enlarged the pool of sources for good ideas. Specialization, which is the hallmark of modern economic activity, deepens the knowledge base from which good ideas might spring, while contact and communication broaden the field. Ridley makes a convincing case, and I think the argument can be carried a few steps farther.

This mechanism of drawing on knowledge and creativity of individuals for the benefit of the group applies as well to economics and government. The economic system that gives the most power to individuals is capitalism, and the social system that does so is democracy. In capitalism, individuals are free to make their economic choices and are allowed to keep the larger portion of what they earn whether through effort, ingenuity or luck. In democracy, individuals can drive policy through their choices at the ballot box, in rallies and protests, and, not infrequently, in nothing more than a polling result. Both capitalism and democracy are messy ways to proceed, but recognition of the enormous value of collective knowledge provides a theoretical justification for both.

What does all this have to do with Carlisle in particular, as Mosquito Forum articles are supposed to? Admittedly, not much. But as we go about our lives, we are participating in a grander enterprise, and for all I know some of the world’s best new ideas may spring up here in Carlisle. Do you find that an intriguing idea? ∆



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