Volume 3 Number 2
Cornerstones the Builders Didn't Reject
01 February 1990
The company that is doing the conversions employs, among others, alcoholics, drug-addicts, former prisoners - people who are generally considered unemployable.
In the town of Dourdon, just south of Paris, a row of derelict houses has just been converted into low-cost flats. The local municipality hopes that the scheme will go some way to help solve France's growing homelessness.
But the homeless are not the only ones benefiting. The company that is doing the conversions employs, among others, alcoholics, drug-addicts, former prisoners - people who are generally considered unemployable.
Etienne Primard, who started the company 11 years ago, sees the work almost as a spiritual quest. He and his brother, Denis, who has a similar building company in Paris, are experimenting with ways of operating commercially which are in tune with their Christian convictions. For them, sharing, as opposed to competition, is central.
The story really starts with their father, a wealthy intellectual who felt that French society was going the wrong way. He bought land in the village of Le Rotoir, near Dourdon, took his family out of school and educated them himself.
`Our father felt there should be a balance between intellectual and manual work,' says Denis. `When he felt we were becoming too intellectual he pressed us to do manual work.'
Their style of working has evolved out of daily contact with people `who do not have the choice of intellectual work'. Denis spent several years as a woodworker in Paris before changing to building - an occupation in which people without skills can more easily be included. Etienne identified a need for building in the community of Le Rotoir itself.
One of their colleagues, Gerard Gigand, had no previous experience of building and talks freely of mistakes he has made. `But,' he says, `working alongside people is much more difficult than solving technical problems.
Space to exist
'The people who work with us are socially underprivileged. They do not believe they can be responsible or achieve anything; and they find it hard to take initiative. At the same time they have their pride.'
He recalls a time when he was in charge of refitting three rooms. On the first day he started on the rewiring while an experienced builder, Patrick Barrier, was showing another man how to prepare a parquet floor. On the second day, Barrier was not there and the electrical work was only partly done. The man who had been working on the parquet floor said that he knew enough to continue. Gigand trusted him. But when he started to lay the floor itself he made such a bad job of it that Gigand had to stop him. This reinforced the man's feelings that he was useless, and he formed a grudge against Gigand.
Later, at one of the monthly meetings of those responsible for the work, Gigand's colleagues helped him to see that he should have stopped his own activity and worked alongside the other man.
`The priority of our work is first and foremost to give people space to exist,' says Gigand. `It is not easy to disrupt your organized way of doing things to make space for someone else. You can only do this if people come before money, and even before the idea of working properly.' But, he adds, `then you find the work is done properly'.
The groups aim to pay each according to their needs rather than according to how productive or responsible they are - and since everyone's basic needs are more or less the same the salaries are also similar. Some needs, such as housing, can be met in more direct ways. The group helped Gigand to refurbish the once-derelict house which he now rents, giving hundreds of man-hours of work. He has helped others in the group with their housing needs.
Quality is important, says Gigand. `It is too easy, and in a sense fraudulent, to employ underprivileged people to do bad work. Nobody grows through it. When you employ people you must have some yardsticks. One yardstick is commercial success - if the company runs out of money then we are doing something wrong.'
For this reason the Primards' two groups operate commercially. The right relationship with the customer is essential. `We are committed to quality,' says Gigand, `but the route we take to achieving it may cause anxiety - in terms of the time taken or the need to re-do the work if it is not well done. The customer must understand that people have the right to make mistakes.'
On each job the group starts by exploring with the client what his or her dream is - not just what they have seen in a catalogue or even what they feel is technically possible, which they often don't know. Then they work out together what they can do. `Sometimes,' says Denis, `we have refused to do things the customer asked us to do because we didn't feel they could afford it.'
For example, the group did a job for a woman who had adopted three children, one of whom was a little girl without arms. They realized that the whole thing had to revolve around that girl - the tap fittings, the heights of the light switches, even the type of flooring for someone who would use her bare feet a lot.
Contracts are always verbal. This has been exploited on occasion - but they feel written contracts would undermine the trust they seek to establish. It is a trust which allows customers to leave money lying about in the presence of former convicts. `If clients are not interested in the trust factor then we are not too interested in them,' says Gigand, explaining that the group has more offers of work than it can cope with.
Source of identity
Some of those who work with the group leave, having learned skills, to take higherpaid work. A few return later, having decided that they want to share what they have with others. But the Primards resist any sense of achievement, emphasizing that they fail to help many people - and probably always will. `The only people who are prepared to work with us are either those who have come to this decision intellectually, or those who are so down-and-out that they have very little choice,' says Denis.
`But there comes a time,' he adds, `when the pressures of society become so great that, however well thought-out the intellectual decision is, you are overpowered unless you have a spiritual conversion. A lot depends on the source of your feeling of identity. If it is linked too much with society as it is, then it's hard to quit society's ways, because you doubt yourself.'