How 67 tons of brick connected a community

brick walk at Harmony Village
Harmony Village residents worked through the scorching summer of 2001 a drought year in Colorado to lay down 45,000 bricks over a 10-foot wide path that stretched the length of the community. (Photo by Evangeline Welch)

Joe picks up the top brick from the pile on his left and adjusts it into position on the sliding tray of the tile saw. He braces the brick with one hand while flipping a switch with the other. ZZZZZZZZZ! The brick eases forward into the diamond-edge saw blade and soon becomes a custom-fit brick paver. He wears safety glasses, earplugs and rubber gloves to protect him from the intense noise, tiny chips of brick and cold water spraying from the whirling blade. The saw stands near the center of a grove of young aspen trees that commemorate the arrival of four babies in the first year of our village. The leaves of the aspens and the pea gravel under the trees are covered with a fine red film - water mixed with pulverized brick dust.

Tonight, Joe will wash red dust out of his ears, nose, hair, eyebrows and every inch of clothing.

The saw has been running 10 hours a day for the past 10 weekends up to 200 hours so far and will continue running for another 100 hours to complete all the cuts, recuts and fancy cuts before our brick walkway is finished.

Would our efforts be worth it?

We worked through the scorching summer of 2001 a drought year in Colorado to lay down 45,000 half-thickness bricks over the 10-foot wide gray concrete that stretched the length of our community. For five years, we had tripped over raised manhole covers and concrete step-ups designed to accommodate the height of our future walkway. We had fretted over the amount of work this project would take and had debated residents' fears and concerns.

  • The surface will be too rough for the children to play on.
  • The bricks will be too hot to walk on with bare feet.
  • The designs will be too hard for us to do and will look too busy.
  • It will take us forever and we'll burn ourselves out.
  • We could use this money for something else.

Macon, one of our elders (84 years young), moves a push broom back and forth across the top of a completed section of bricks. He wears work gloves and a straw hat to protect him from the high summer sun. The soft swish of his broom is the only sound in a moment of respite from the saw's intermittent whine. Macon sweeps fine grains of sand into the cracks between the bricks to stabilize them in place. A couple of kids zoom past him on their scooters. In the background, bricks clink against each other. A crew working a hundred feet down the 10 foot-wide walkway rolls out a black carpet of tar paper. Several emerging masters reach for bricks from small stacks on the grass, next to the work in progress.

They wear sunglasses, hats, and loose summer clothing for weather conditions that often feel like a super-dry sauna. Hands protected by heavy-duty rubber gloves some duct-taped to cover holes worn by the bricks sharp edges move in a rhythm, laying bricks one by one on top of the cushion provided by the paper. A new, four-color pattern is emerging in the red swath, and the workers stop for a moment to check their accuracy and admire their work, as if they were painting a huge mural on the ground.

From the work crew comes a sudden flurry of laughter. The patterns in the walkway confer a tangible sense of productivity. The relationships forming among community members are just as satisfying.

Preparing for the challenge

In five years of living together, we had discovered how the work gets done. Projects large or small rest on the back burner until a champion decides to take them on. The $10,000 set aside for the walkway from our initial budget accrued interest while we recovered from the physical trauma of move-in, worked through lists of things to be fixed, and developed trust in our decision-making process.

Recovering from the move-in required a few months; the latter took several years.

We had committed to the walkway project before we moved in, so to re-open that decision for discussion required assent by a majority of households at a full community meeting. This meant that the walkway was on until we actively decided otherwise. We had lessons to learn, however, before we were ready to tackle a project this large.

First, we learned whatever project we tackle takes all of us, but in very different capacities. Some people watch children while others push, pull and lift. Some people fix lunch and carry water to thirsty workers while others saw, carry bricks and pound nails. Some people calculate lineal feet and materials wastage and draw designs on graph paper while others buy supplies and clean up the mess at the end of the day. Over time, we learned to trust that work would be found appropriate to each person's abilities and desires. Everyone contributes, but in different ways.

We also learned to delegate responsibility and to let go of control. Some of us consistently demonstrate an outstanding talent for breaking complex tasks into manageable chunks. We've learned to trust these individuals, rely on their insights and allow them to do what they do best. Grateful for their willingness to take on organizational challenges, we no longer become involved in the details or do much second-guessing. Instead, we offer support, ask clarifying questions and show up when they ask for help.

I'm leaning over a puzzle of pavers, seeing bricks at all angles wind their way around a double curve along the outside of the walkway. With bad knees and a stiff lower back, I don't kneel anymore. I sit and scoot along the grass or brick surface. Our task is particularly challenging along the corners of each courtyard as we attempt to shape sinuous angles out of rectangular bricks. Each corner requires more than 150 individual cuts, and each cut requires a set of special tools 18-inch metal rulers, permanent markers and a stash of discarded brick pieces to fill in odd-shaped gaps.

I pull a brick from one stack, position and reposition, mark the cutting line, draw an X indicate which side to toss away. I write a number on the back of the brick and on the concrete below so each piece will match up after the saw has done its work. I mark as many as I can carry, then walk to the saw, trim my stack and carry them back to my work area. One corner takes me all day from sunrise to sundown to complete. At the end, I am racing to finish the cuts and clean up the saw before darkness falls.

Getting organized

I had joined with architect Matt Worswick, Harmony's designer, to move the walkway project forward. We formed an ad hoc team of community members to help us examine our options, project material costs, organize our work force and finalize color selections, material lists, etc. We had paved the patio of our Common House five years before, and from that experience estimated the walkway would require an average of eight people per day for 8-12 weekends. The ad hoc team met several times over several months, considered all the concerns and ramifications, and prepared a detailed plan for the community. The plan was clearly ambitious, and we hoped everyone would participate to some degree. But the work was all-volunteer. Some thought we'd be lucky to finish before the snow flew in October. Some thought we'd be laying bricks into the following summer.

We didn't really know how long it would take or even if we'd have enough bricks. We didn't know exactly how we would handle the sunken pans on the edges (for drainage) or what the designs would look like. Nor did we know how we would manage to move 135,000 pounds of bricks. Would our backs hold up, and our spirits? Would our community survive? I developed what I thought was a reasoned response to such doubts: we'll figure it out. We're anticipating what we can, and we'll solve whatever problems arise as we go.

Joining together

In the end, all 27 households contributed. Some of us worked nearly every weekend, others only a few hours. Some worked because they felt guilty, while others enjoyed the camaraderie of working together and even came to love it. Some kids worked alongside their parents, presenting us with the challenge of finding adequate work gloves for such small hands. (Several children expressed excitement about the hockey rink pattern we designed and placed right in front of their house.)

To accomplish our goal, we ruined gloves, clothing and shoes. We developed deep tans and toned muscles. We put in more hours than some people wanted to count an estimated 800 hours but as Matt said, When you love it, you don't count.

We produced something of beauty with our own hands, something tangible for all to see, a physical symbol that joined us together. The red bricks match the red tile on our porch roofs and sweep down the length of our community, carrying the eye through the stucco arch at our western edge and right up into the blue-green foothills that dominate our western sky. A neighbor who's a pilot reports that the walkway is stunning from the air. As Joe, the brick cutter, summarized, Nobody did this but us.

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