manual labor

It's a fine thing to be surrounded by award-winning artisans who live in fashionable urban areas, but what if you practice in Lawrence, Kan.? If you're Dan Rockhill, you do the work yourself. His firm, Rockhill and Associates, has its own welding shop, where Rockhill and six employees use a forklift to empty the semi trucks that arrive loaded with steel. He says he can't find a metalworker who can do the work as elegantly and inexpensively as he can. Right now he's working on a $200,000 house with a wood screen around it, supported by 50 galvanized-steel frames bolted to the house. On a previous project, steel louvers shaded every room of the residence.

“Because we know what's involved in fabrication, we can keep our costs to a minimum,” says Rockhill, who learned metalworking from books and online. “But we are very careful. In my mind, what separates those who can from those who can't is the ability to navigate your way through a very complex set of details and not just get sucked into an incredible expense that you could live to regret.”

Rockhill's work habits result not so much from a sense of pride as a dearth of local fabricators interested in the work he does. “You'd be surprised how much tradition has influenced the building process,” he says. “I suspect that a lot of the older fabricators in our region would want to teach us a lesson rather than get the work done. They're thinking they'll give us a price that's out of this world—‘and then you'll be sorry.'”

Luckily, Rockhill recently found someone in Kansas City, Mo., whom he plans to work with on an upcoming project: a Frenchman who, he says, “speaks our language.”