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A decade ago, John Hindman couldn't buy the windows and doors needed to restore vintage homes; he had to make them. Today, his devotion to traditional methods and materials has culminated in an ingenious handcrafted 'bungalito.'
Why do people love old houses? Maybe it's because they remind us of some long-ago, long-lost home. Maybe it's their quirky character. It's certainly not because they're any less expensive or easier to maintain than new houses.
Ask John Hindman of Red River Restorations, and he'll give you a different answer: Old houses remind us that there's another way to live. "Our society has changed a lot in the past 100 years," he says, pausing. " ‘A lot' is too small of a [phrase] for how much it's changed." A culture of cheap and fast has crowded out values like quality, durability, and craftsmanship. And it's those values that Hindman is out to restore, one building at a time.
Austin, Texas-based Red River Restorations and Fine Woodworking, formally founded in 2003, initially grew out of necessity. "Most of what you need [to restore] an old house, you can't buy," Hindman says. Windows, doors, trim - whatever it is, "it's not the right size; it's not the right kind of wood; it has to be made." So he started making. He began with custom-built wood-frame screens, but they didn't hang properly over the modern windows people kept installing, so Hindman realized there was a need to restore sash-weighted windows, too. Windows and trim led to doors, doors to screen doors. "Nothing looks better on a handcrafted house than a handcrafted door in the style that would have been there originally," he says.
As word got out, his company grew into a bustling neighborhood-based business, doing work for designers, contractors, and architects, along with homeowners whose beloved Craftsman-style houses dot the city's streets. The small outfit, which now counts seven employees plus Hindman in its ranks, also has been called in to work on four museums in the area.
Sometimes, in the midst of a project, someone will make a historical discovery about a structure - names and dates or the original builder's name penciled onto the trim - providing its owners with not merely restoration or repair, but a piece of their building's story, Hindman says. It's clear that he has deep respect for well-crafted structures, including his own. The company operates out of a meticulously restored 1935 garage apartment building on Red River Street, just north of downtown Austin, with a second woodshop on the city's east side.
The group's newest offering is a custom outbuilding, affectionately dubbed the "bungalito," that merges their skills and products in a single, sparkling structure. Around a couple hundred square feet, bungalitos can be constructed as period-perfect mates to original homes, providing additional-but-modest space for a studio, office, retreat, or guest room. And because the company builds them with the same attention to materials and workmanship that characterizes old houses, the tiny buildings can be expected to last just as long.
Longevity, after all, is a big part of what's so iconoclastic about the company's approach. Take windows. Modern, double-paned windows may be more energy-efficient, day-to-day, than the classic sash-weighted design. But what happens, Hindman wants to know, when the new windows wear out? The longest warranty out there is 20 years, and even the ones made of wood have degradable plastic parts. The gas sealed between the panes will eventually leak. "In 100 years, if you're replacing windows four or five times and throwing them all in a landfill - that's insane," Hindman says. "But no one thinks about it that way, because they're only going to live in the house for seven years."
He shifts his attention to paint, momentum building in his friendly voice, and explains that the life span of an exterior paint job these days is four or five years. When house paint was hand-mixed, though tedious to apply, it lasted for decades. (He's working on developing his own.) It's just another example of how our expectations have shifted, he says. "People would like their paint to last 40 years, but they don't want their paint to take two weeks to dry, and [they want] to be able to paint in January."
Yet more and more people are choosing Hindman's way of doing things, from his company's clients to people across the country who have joined in this shift toward what the inventor Saul Griffith calls "heirloom design," a spirited repudiation of the throw-away principles of consumer culture. Judging from the rebounding DIY ethic and the popularity of books such as Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House, a lot of Americans are recognizing that something's missing in contemporary society. That intangible value goes by a lot of names - quality, authenticity - but readers of this magazine will recognize it by this one: craftsmanship.
The power of craftsmanship may be why Hindman has never had to recruit colleagues: Jacob Barnes - with two years under his belt, the most senior employee - showed up after graduating from the University of Texas, where he studied geography and environmental science. "His great-grandfather and grandfather were both woodworkers; he just had it in his makeup, in his genes," Hindman says. Taylor Yarbrough, who's been there almost as long, was another recent college grad who fell into the fold, after working as a manager at a hotel. Gillis Schwartz, fresh out of law school, went to Dallas to work for a firm. Six months later, he showed up on Hindman's doorstep.
David Loesch pulled his car over one day when Hindman was outside working on the prototype bungalito: "He came up, and his first words were: ‘If you teach me to do this, I'll work for you for free.' " Hindman took him on (and paid him). With a couple of different careers in his past, including an eight-year stretch at Dell Computers, Hindman understands the significance of making full-time work out of what you love to do.
"A lot of people, if they took up a craft like this, would discover what their capabilities are," he says. "If they just did it - if they just started working with their hands. But you'd never know if you didn't do that."
Julie K. Hanus is American Craft's senior editor.