Book Reviews:  03/03/2010
Book describes how King (right) earned bargaining power among top forces like Mayor Richard J. Daley (left). Reflections on Affirmative Action in Construction

By Paul King
271 pages; $25.99

Forty years ago, construction sites in Chicago were 98% white. Today, the number of blacks and minorities in the trades is well over 20%. Contracts set aside for minority participation are now commonplace, yet few minority professionals own businesses large enough to compete with old-line construction firms run largely by white men.

This greatly troubles Paul King, a former painting contractor who, in 1969, helped lead the affirmative action movement in construction. With the support of Chicago street gangs (who look like Boy Scouts compared to modern thugs), King and other leaders earned a place at the bargaining table by shutting down jobsites and demanding equal rights. Along with the fight, King, now 70, learned how much of a personal struggle the construction business can be. As the founder of contractor UBM Inc., King was an ENR Marksman (now called Newsmaker) in 1974. After growing past 100 employees and an annual revenue of roughly $50 million, UBM folded in 2007 under economic pressure.

Such factors as poor recruiting, system abuses, slow pay increases, white-firm lobbying and a general loss of public support have all hurt affirmative action, says King. In the end, though, he chalks up much of it to a lack of activism within the black community and a “digital divide” that is threatening to keep poor, minority children from discovering how exciting and profitable a career in construction can be.

Contractor teaches kids how wind turbines work. Catch the Wind

By Anne Johnson and others; Beaver’s Pond Press
40 pages; $11.50

Staffers at Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction, one of the nation’s largest wind-farm builders, thought it would be a good idea to teach children about the mechanics of this growing form of renewable energy.

The easy-reading book, written by Mortenson’s Tom Wacker, Robyn Johnson and Ashley Reichow under the supervision of lead author Anne Johnson, takes the reader on a quick and dirty tour of a wind-farm job. It includes crisp drawings and photographs to illustrate the technology as well as a helpful glossary at the end.

Aimed at kids ages 6-12, it is short on plot and big on science, which is why the book is generating attention from grade-school teachers. However, the book also is a publicity vehicle for Mortenson—its logos appear on nearly every other page.

Book covers design and construction of medieval ceilings. Heavenly Vaults

By David Stephenson; Princeton Architectural Press
191 pages; $65

Have you have ever found yourself staring at an old church ceiling and wondering, “How in the heck did they build that?” If so, then this book will be a welcome addition to your desk or coffee table. David Stephenson, an associate professor at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia, painstakingly documents the ceilings of churches in 125 color photographs. Starting with the Pantheon, built in Rome between 117 A.D. and 138 A.D. and whose dome spans 142 ft in pozzolanic, unreinforced concrete, Stephenson covers the beauty that hangs high above the great houses of worship in England, France, Italy, Spain and other European countries through the late 16th Century.

Aside from the brilliant photographs, which are shot straight up and tiled together with a kaleidoscope-like effect, Stephenson offers a written account of vault engineering and construction methods during the Middle Ages. The role of owner, architect, engineer and craftsman in that period were often blurry: Master masons served as architects to their patrons and typically spent decades designing and building these structures, he explains. A gradual progression of technology made vault building possible—simple barrel vaults gave way to geometric rib vaults and so on—and masons learned to build in bays for economy. Delicate ornamentation hid their handiwork and made the segmented ceilings look like continuous structures. Scaffolding and other timber supports were integrated into the structure and reusable—a safety and cost-saving technique passed down from at least the Roman era and still in use today.