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If These Walls Could Talk

Tuesday, November 06, 2012 - 07:00 AM

House under construction, with skeletal framing of one room and exposed pipes showing Under construction, the skeleton and veins of a house lay exposed. (doug the trail builder/flickr/CC-BY-SA 2.0)

A few months ago, a plumber snaked my tub. Which is to say, he slithered a coiled metal wire through the drain, past clumps of hair and soapy detritus, and then cranked it round and round in the hopes of obliterating whatever blockage had filled my tub with six inches of standing water. It didn't work.

The problem, it turned out, was not beneath my tub, not even beneath my apartment. It was somewhere "deep" between my apartment and my neighbor's.

This sounded big. Torn up floorboards. Water spraying in all directions. The 1986 renovation horror comedy The Money Pit flashed before my eyes. (This is my first apartment after years in a grad student dorm, which might explain the epic dread and helplessness that washed over me.)

The plumber returned later that day with more gear. Since I work from home, and since my one-bedroom apartment is tiny, the two of us were comically trapped in each other's workspace. I kept peppering him with questions, and he answered them genially enough. (Me: What are the weirdest things you've found in people's pipes? Him: Mostly hair.) Then, in response to yet another one of my dumb questions, he surprised me with a stunningly elegant idea. A metaphor.

Think of a house like a person, he told me.

The wooden frame is the skeleton, and the water pump is the heart. The electrical wiring acts as nerves, the plumbing circulates, and the septic and waste lines flush out the system. Most importantly, though, are the pipes: the veins and arteries and capillaries. They're the lifelines of the body.

So a blockage in one part of the house, this philosophizing pony-tailed plumber told me, is like a blood clot -- a seemingly tiny problem that can wreak havoc on the entire system. Everything is connected. Which is why a blockage way off in the caverns between the buildings could affect me.

I had never heard this analogy before. Admittedly, I had never imagined the world of pipes as anything more than stiff tubing and unforgiving valves. (My expertise ends at plunging a toilet.) But I liked it. I particularly loved the idea that something as seemingly unnatural and cold as a pipe could be as warm and organic as the human body.

As a historian of medicine, I have always been fascinated by the intimacy that comes with taking the human pulse. And here was a guy who was essentially taking the pulse of my house, using his coiled wire snake like a stethoscope.

I wondered whether other plumbers considered themselves to be house doctors, or whether they had their own metaphors to explain what they do when attacking our drains.

And then I found Steven Ragno, based out of Vermont, using the Public Insight Network -- American Public Media's database of citizen voices. In a prosaic email to me, he suggested that when he crosses the threshold into your house, he becomes … an inventor:

When you look at good plumbing, remember that it didn't grow there. Every piece and pipe and valve was placed there with intent of purpose.

What my plumber saw as a raw and living spirit in the pipes, Ragno sees as just very good design.

This is the secret: if you build something well it will look and act like it is something from nature.

However natural or unnatural, I love the idea that the structure I call home is also alive in its way, and constantly pulsating with energy and flow. A pulse I can tap into. My plumber's visit offered the kind of tiny mental nudge that makes you think differently about the walls around you, the walls you live in.

Are you a plumber with a philosophy for your work? We’d also love to hear original takes on other professions -- do you have an interesting metaphor that helps explain the work you do? Turn our perspectives upside down: share your ideas in the comments section below. And feel free to sketch your philosophies as well, you can send drawings and any other schematics to

Here's a longer excerpt of Steven Ragno's essay on his philosophy of plumbing:

...I do think any good plumber treats his/her job with the same sense of importance as a doctor; maybe with a little less stress. We do have one of those jobs where you work when the jobs come. When you’re needed, you are needed immediately. This is exactly like a doctor or surgeon. Some days there is nothing to do. Some days you have three people who desperately need your help at once. I have had more then a few days that ended late in the evening when someone’s heating system failed in January and we couldn’t go home until it was fixed.

When you look at good plumbing it’s easy to think of veins and arteries. Good plumbing looks organic. Good pipe set-ups hug walls and find the path of least resistance through the rigid skeleton of a wood-framed home. However, this is where good plumbers have their secret. They are inventors.

I think of my work more as an inventor. When I plumb a house I am governed by some very strict rules, namely physics and the Vermont plumbing code. But beyond these rules, I approach each job and say to myself “Ok, I know what I want it to do when I leave; how do I make that happen?” Remember now that plumbing is much more than your bathroom. Plumbers build and maintain everything that runs through pipes. We can go from drinking fountains to propane gas lines to medical oxygen to septic pumps – the list goes on and on.

When you look at good plumbing, remember that it didn’t grow there. Every piece and pipe and valve was placed there with intent of purpose. This is where I feel we differ from a medical mindset. We do not act to make things work they way they always do. We build and choose how those piping systems are going to work for us. This is the secret; if you build something well it will look and act like it is something from nature.

My philosophy for my job is that I understand how the water (or whatever) in these pipes will behave. I then work to make it so it behaves the way I want it to, to the delight of my customer. Nothing about it is inherently right. It works because I make it so.


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Comments [5]


For those who have not forgotten the "Fact of the Matter" this again gets at the heart of the issue of Yellow Rain, and what was wrong with the podcast from a third party perspective.

Radiolab has so much to answer for.

Nov. 13 2012 07:31 PM

I really liked the geometrical painting analogy. There is beauty in all things.

Nov. 12 2012 02:18 PM
:) from work

so cus you are kinda cool, i will submit a story rather short, just for the smile of it.
Since am Cleaning Engineer, one of my basic tasks is dust-ing as well as mop-ing. working at the same territory over and over gives not just vexation, gives even more...
Ofc engineering isnt just about efficiency but fun and laughter - therefrom add-ing imagination kinda helps, and surprisingly the boring-till-death washing with the stupid mop suddenly becomes a huge geometrical painting needing colour-filling with the huge imaginary brush. It works, since the surface shanges colour due to watering it :D. Stupid a.

Nov. 09 2012 02:42 AM
stil me from :D

Latif, are you sure you did't add anything spec in your coffee, like bio-sugar, that spec morning - few months ago?

Nov. 07 2012 07:39 AM
kinda nobody from 'front the comp, where else..' :P

great info-breakfast Latif,
but i dont think 'comments' is appropriate place for stories of this range

Nov. 07 2012 07:36 AM

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