How Sixty-Seven Tons of Brick Connected a Community

Saoirse Charis-Graves, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

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 he flips a switch with the other. Zzzz! 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 and nose and hair and eyebrows and every inch of every layer of clothing. The saw has been running ten hours a day for the past ten weekends—up to 200 hours so far—and will continue running for another 100 hours to complete all the cuts, recuts (“It doesn’t fit!”), and fancy cuts before our brick walkway is finished.

We worked through the scorching summer of 2001—a drought year in Colorado—to lay down 55,000 half-thick bricks over the ten-foot-wide gray concrete stretching the length of our community. For five years we had tripped over raised manhole covers and concrete step-ups that were designed to accommodate the height of our future walkway. We fretted over the amount of work involved in the project and debated the fears of some residents:

“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 and 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 (eighty-four years young), moves a push broom back and forth across the top of a completed section of bricks. He wears a straw hat to protect him from the high summer sun and work gloves, a soft swish of his broom 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 and complains, “It’s a thankless job scraping this sand around.” Of course, we know he’s just kidding and that he wishes he were young enough to be doing “real” work. A couple of kids zoom past him on their scooters. In the background, bricks clink against each other. A work crew 100 feet down the ten-foot-wide walkway rolls out a black carpet: tar paper laid down as the first layer. Several emerging masters reach for bricks from small stacks on the grass next to the work in progress.

They wear sunglasses and sun hats and loose summer clothing for weather conditions that often feel like a superdry 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, but just as satisfying are the patterns being laid among people.

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, working through punch lists of things to be fixed and developing trust in our decision-making process. The first required a few months, the latter several years. The decision committing us to the walkway project occurred before we moved in; to reopen that decision for discussion required assent by a majority of households at a full community meeting. Therefore, the walkway was on until we actively decided otherwise. But we had lessons to live before we were ready to tackle a project this large.

First, we learned not everybody has to do everything. Some people watch children while others push and pull and lift. Some people fix lunch and carry water to thirsty workers while others saw, carry bricks, and pound nails. Some people buy supplies and clean up the mess at the end of the day, while others calculate lineal feet and materials wastage and draw out designs on graph paper. Whatever project we tackle takes all of us, but in very different capacities. Over time, we learned to trust that work would be found that is appropriate to each one’s abilities and desire. Each one could contribute, albeit in different ways.

Second, we learned to delegate responsibility and let go of control. Some of our residents consistently demonstrate an outstanding talent for taking complex tasks and breaking them into manageable chunks. We’ve learned to trust these individuals, to rely on their insight and their judgment. Instead of getting involved in the details, we allow them to do what they do best. We offer support and ask clarifying questions, but we don’t do too much second-guessing. Mostly, we’re grateful they’re willing to take on the organizational challenge of such projects. And when asked for help, we show up.

I am leaning over a puzzle in pavers, bricks at all angles winding 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. The corner of each courtyard is a special challenge, forcing rectangular bricks into sinuous angles. Each corner requires more than 150 individual cuts; each cut requires a set of special tools—eighteen-inch metal rulers, permanent markers, 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 to indicate which side to toss away, and 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 to complete, sunup to sundown. At the end, I am racing the sun to finish the cuts and clean up the saw before darkness falls.

I joined with Matt, Harmony’s designer, to move the walkway project forward as co-champions. We formed an ad hoc team of community members to help us examine our options, project material costs, organize our workforce, and finalize color selections, material lists, and so forth. We’d 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 eight to twelve 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 next 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. We didn’t 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.

In the end, all twenty-seven households contributed. Some people worked nearly every weekend, some only a few hours. Some individuals came out of guilt; others enjoyed the camaraderie of working together and even came to love it. Some of the kids worked alongside their parents, presenting us with the challenge of finding adequate work gloves for such small hands. (Several of the kids were especially excited 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 joining us together in this final way. 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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