Home » Spotlight » Spotlight: Michael J Cuba of Knobb Hill Joinery and Transom Historic Preservation Consulting

Spotlight: Michael J Cuba of Knobb Hill Joinery and Transom Historic Preservation Consulting

Michael J. Cuba

Michael J. Cuba

Michael J Cuba is Co-founder of Knobb Hill Joinery Inc. in Plainfield, Vermont, and Owner of Transom Historic Preservation Consulting. He serves on the board of Timber Framers Guild, currently as president, and has involvement with most of the TFG committees. He also has taken a leadership role in the Traditional Timber Framers Research & Advisory Group, which is one of the TFG’s four councils. To a lesser extent, he is also involved with the TFG Company Council and the TF engineering council, where he says he is “really just a fly on the wall”.

We asked Michael how he got involved with restoration timber framing. He told us: “After graduating from college, I worked for the Institute for Social Ecology. They had a ‘sustainable design, building and land use’ curriculum that included timber framing. Seth Kelley was hired as an instructor. I began to work side jobs with him and eventually went to work for Jan Lewandoski, Seth’s main employer at the time. Jan is an icon in the historic preservation community. After two barn restoration projects with Jan, I began working on steeples and covered bridges. After a few years of working for Jan, Seth and I began to take on side projects and, with Jan’s support, we created our own preservation company.” And Knobb Hill Joinery was born.

Though still involved with Knobb Hill, Michael has moved away from Vermont and begun a new business. As he says, “A few years ago, I got married and moved to Connecticut. My wife was working for Yale at the time. I would run back and forth to VT to continue working with Seth. A few years after that, my wife took a job at Princeton. This proved to be too far to commute regularly to VT (although I do still go up on occasion to work with Seth). Since moving south, I have been working by day for the New Jersey Barn Company. On the side, I have started up a consulting company. Through the new venture, I have been working with Dr. Daniel Miles of the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory. I take core samples and document structures. The cores are set to Dr. Miles lab for dating.”

We asked Michael Cuba to describe the interrelationship of his expertise in restoration with the various organizations with which he is involved. He replied, “When I first began to get involved with the TFG, I really isolated myself to TTRAG events. Historic Preservation and restoration is where my interests are. In the beginning, I really sought out as much related input as possible in a rather focused and concerted way. Now, I am swimming in more information than I can ever keep up with, which is really just what I had wanted. As a result, I am much more comfortable branching out into other areas of the craft. Continued research and discovery of historic practices inform the modern interpretations of the trade and, oddly, I am finding that looking at modern practices continues to raise more questions about traditional joinery methods.”

“I also work with other organizations that are a bit less technical about joinery, but just as enthusiastic and often add other historic, technological and cultural perspectives that can inform us about how we relate to various structures both past and present. Some of these groups include the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, Crafts of NJ, The Preservation Trades Network, the National Barn Alliance, The Audubon Society and the Vernacular Architecture Forum US & Group UK. Every time I read a good book, I paw through the bibliography and look for titles that I might not yet know. In much the same way, I have a habit of joining every potentially relevant organization that I get wind of. ”

Then we asked Michael what have been some of the projects he is proudest of. He told us “Funny, the first thing that came to mind was not a project that I did, but one that I walked away from. I imagine that everyone has done this at some point, but I was pretty hungry for work in the beginning and all too willing and determined to let go of less than ideal projects. The one that came to mind had been presented as a preservation/ restoration project. We had been involved in the consulting phases for many months and even taught classes there for a Discovery Channel program. As the months rolled by, the architects and engineers involved with the project began down the slippery slope from conservation to rehabilitation. We had advocated for our position and ideals to no avail. Perhaps too proud for my own good, I made the decision not to bid on the work as it had been specified and walked away. That was many years ago. Every once in a while I drive by the site and see that nothing has changed. The project stalled out for a variety of poor decisions. So, it would seem that I might have made the right call on that one.”

“The second one that comes to mind is a project where the homeowner came out and asked me to help her son with his homework. I was totally taken aback by the request and it must have shown. The homeowner reached out, took my wrist and said ‘don’t worry, you can just keep billing. It’s an English paper and you are the only person that we can think of to help with this’. I wish I could say that the kid got an ‘A’ but I truly don’t remember. I’m sure that someone does. I was glad to have been asked. I think that it really does illustrate the level of trust that we can develop with clients. Connecting with people at this level is underrated.”

United Church of Craftsbury

United Church of Craftsbury

“Although I have worked on a number of interesting and rewarding projects like the Strafford Town House, the United Church in Craftsbury and the Big Eddy Bridge among others, one stands out as being truly satisfying. When I was working on one of my last regular projects in VT, while running back and forth from Yale, we got a call from a little old lady… She had a simple barn with the usual problems, rotten sills, post feet and even the plates. She had received a barn grant from the state of VT to match funds for the work. She was looking for another estimate to fulfill the state requirements and get the funds released. The problem was that the estimate that she used to seek the grant funding really did not begin to cover the scope of work necessary to get that barn back on stable footing. The state would not make adjustments. So, Seth and I made a decision to make it work.”

“This woman grew up in the farm house at the property and truly loved the barn as much as anyone ever could. She used to sleep up in the loft on summer nights and just wanted to be able to continue doing that. So we began work on the barn. She borrowed a camcorder from the local public TV station and followed us around for weeks, interviewing us all the while. She would bring friends around or spend time in the garden near the barn. She was so thrilled when we put her barn back up (with a gin pole) and seemed sad to see us go.”

“The next year, she had invited us to come back to the barn for a bit of a celebration. I had come up from CT on my way to work on another project and planned to stop on the way. Her barn was down a dirt road a bit beyond a covered bridge. As I rounded the corner before the barn, I saw fire trucks with lights flashing and people all up and down the street. My heart sunk. I was sure that I had just arrived to the demise of the beloved barn by fire. Only to find that she had just thrown a colossal party and invited the whole town. I arrived at the barn and was greeted with a hug and immediately asked if I would give a talk. In spite of my road weariness and lack of preparation, I pulled a laser pointer out of my pocket (yes, I always carry one) and gave a tour of the barn. Did we lose money? More than likely. Was it worth it? Absolutely!”

Strafford Town House

Strafford Town House

We asked Michael what challenges he has had to overcome in his professional journey. He said “Initially, the biggest challenge was being invisible and not having much in the way of resources. That problem seems to be well in the past now but it took a lot of willingness on my part to go the extra mile at every opportunity. I still do, it’s not the worst habit.”

“Beyond that, learning how to communicate clearly with different kinds of clients is an art. There is a bit of an advantage in doing preservation and restoration work though. The building tells you what it was and that informs your work and sets parameters. We do not do renovation work, so we do not have to negotiate the volatilities of people’s tastes as much as others in the trades often must. What we do need to be good at is clear, well founded understanding of each structure and its history. Where there is room for interpretation, others, certain of their good ideas may tend to take liberties. Sticking to traditional preservation and restoration has saved us from many of these headaches.”

Preservation timber framing has some different challenges than new-build framing. Michael described two of them to us. He says” The first is that not all damage is always self-evident in a structure without popping a few boards and sinking a few drill bits (and tapping on every stick). Not every client wants to invest in a thorough investigation, but they do want to know ‘what’s this going to cost me’. So this is an art. Years of experience helps develop good intuition, but establishing the goals of the client and developing clear budgets is critical to overcoming the limitations of cursory assessments. From the beginning, I put everything into spreadsheets with the goal that I would someday be able to rely on that information to aid me in putting numbers to projects. It worked. I can’t say that I look at the numbers very often, but I can say that the habit of keeping track of what we do and how time is spent has made the estimating process much more reliable.”

Big Eddy Bridge

Big Eddy Bridge

“My second thought is preservation and restoration (can be) adverse (to) regulations. This can be a real challenge. What has worked well for dealing with this is to know your standards. Most states and local municipalities refer to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for preservation and also the guidelines from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Many of those who serve on the advisory boards don’t have great context for interpreting these. So, knowing these rules well and being willing to stand in front of these groups and explain how the project meets these rules has often enabled us to help clients in need of variances from the local powers that be. It won’t always work, but often does. “

Finally, we asked Michael what sets him apart from other timber framing experts. He replied “That’s easy. I read a lot. I see a lot, and then I read about it again and again. When I first began to work for Jan, well before the era of smartphones, I used to carry index cards in my back pocket. I would ask Jan questions over lunch each day and he was more than happy to point me to books and other resources. I would scribble titles down and add them to my wish list. I would think of questions for Jan and write them down on the other sides of the cards so I would remember the next time we sat down. So, the process began. I would buy books that Jan or others would recommend and then pick through those bibliographies and find more books. As I met more timber framers, they would tell me of other books and other books would have other bibliographies and so on. I still do it today. I send myself notes by e-mail all the time and look things up. I keep a spreadsheet of all of my joinery and architecture books on my phone to prevent me from buying duplicates now.”

“There are a lot of people that cut great joints. That is not enough. Understanding why you are cutting the joint is what I am always after.”

To find out more about Michael J Cuba, go to

www.knobbhill.com

www.transomhpc.com

He can be emailed at: [email protected], [email protected] , or [email protected]

His phone number is 860-389-2873

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