Bill Robinson passed away peacefully on the morning of October 12, 2023, leaving the building trades bereft of a great advocate.
A staunch promoter of sound building practices, Bill devoted much of his life to raising skill levels and knowledge of building performance among veteran contractors, aspiring trades workers, and well-intentioned volunteers. We at JLC will surely miss his contributions (see listing below), though these were the least of his good works. His presentations at JLC Live, as both a conference speaker and a Building Clinics presenter, his support for SkillsUSA, his work conducting trainings through the LSU AgCenter’s LaHouse Resource Center and his work training volunteers rebuilding homes in New Orleans with lowernine.org and Historic Green epitomize his commitment to trades training and advancing building knowledge. He will be remembered in all these venues, I am sure, as we remember him here: Always leading with a calm, sunny nature, which made working with Bill a joy. Indeed, he brought true joie de vivre, a refreshing zest for simply being, along with a sage outlook, to his work. That outlook always reassured his companions and coworkers that, no matter how difficult or out of kilter things might seem, there is a sound solution to be found through persistent effort and an open mind. As I am learning in preparation to write this piece, he applied such determination and presence to everything he did.
Born on November 18, 1945, Bill grew up in a small farming community in Indiana where, on his uncles’ farms, the first seeds for skilled work took root. Whether it was in rebuilding and servicing farm equipment, or applied to the work of baling hay, stringing fence lines, and building and repairing barns and sheds, Bill developed an aptitude for being a “good mechanic,” which he developed further as a sheet metal mechanic repairing Chinook CH-47 helicopters for the Army during the Vietnam War.
After his Service, he attended Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) in the early 1970s where he obtained an associate in science degree in Marine Technology/Commercial Diving, and later worked for Subsea International as a deep-sea diver, based out of New Orleans. With Subsea he worked in the Gulf of Mexico, in the North Sea off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland, and along the coast of New Zealand, based out of Port Jackson, Australia among other diving gigs.
According to Gary Kane, one of Bill’s classmates at SBCC and a coworker at Subsea, most of the work was for offshore oil field drilling. They had been the third or fourth class to graduate from the diving program, which was instrumental in developing some of the technology used in this fledgling industry. “The industry was young and there was lots of work. It was an exciting time for all of us,” Gary said.
Describing their work together in the North Sea, Gary explained how they lived and worked mostly on construction barges to build oil-drilling platforms. These barges were typically floating over 400 to 600 feet of water, and while building the platform substructure and laying pipe, the 6-person crew would live in chambers pressurized to the depth of the water they’d be working in. Two guys at a time would descend to the work site in a pressurized diving bell, then separate from the bell one at a time to work in shifts before returning to the bell to “sit in the dry.” They would be down for 8 to 10 hours and then return to the barge, while another team descended, continuing round the clock. “We worked with hammers and wrenches and welding torches,” Gary said. “We were basically construction workers; the only difference was how we got to work.”
They were at the forefront of the offshore oil industry, Gary explained, “the second wave just behind the true pioneers.” Since then, a lot has changed, mostly around communications. “At the time, we had cameras, but they were almost as big as suitcases, and we communicated with land via Telex,” Gary said. “Nowadays, divers have something like a GoPro and headsets that makes the topside support much easier,” he continued. “We were out there without doctors or any essential services. Completely on our own and in an extremely hostile environment." In a year, conditions were favorable to work for only about 120 days. Even then, the water was rough and the weather almost always stormy. "Water temperatures were in the 40s, maybe the 50s if you were lucky” Gary added. Hot water pumped from the barge would run through their suits and then into the ocean. “It was an open system, not a circulating one,” Gary explained. “Without that hot water we would have frozen to death in under 15 minutes.”
From Learner to Teacher
After separating from his wife in the late 1980s, he found himself a single dad to three young daughters, which abruptly ended his diving career. Instead, he took on “land construction” jobs in and around Santa Barbara, Ca. – work that was less dangerous and had hours better suited to raising his family. “He had no idea what he was doing, but knew he had to do something new,” his daughter Sarah Robinson explained. “One of those first construction jobs lasted one morning. They wrote him a paycheck at lunch and said ‘we no longer need you,’” another daughter, Amy Robinson continued, laughing. “But he kept at it. That’s how he urged us our whole lives: to ‘show up,’ and ‘get it done.’” These were expressions Bill repeated often and modeled in his own actions throughout his life.
In 1990, Bill formed his own company, Robinson Construction, jumping in feet first to running his own business. “He used to bid on jobs he had no idea how to do,” Amy said. “But he bought whatever tools he needed and taught himself. Maybe that’s not the best way to do it, but he saw it as the only way to make it work.” (I reassured her it’s not uncommon in the construction world for contractors to take on a job and figure it out as they go along. Perhaps the only difference between Bill and a lot of other contractors is that Bill was not shy to admit what he didn’t know.) “He was constantly educating himself. Even about parenting,” Sarah continued. “No dude knows how to raise three daughters. But he never hesitated. He ‘showed up.’ He constantly reminded us that showing up is the most important part of any job.”
In his role as a construction business owner, Bill searched out every avenue available to learn and connect with others to make his business succeed. One of those avenues was the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), and it wasn’t long before he agreed to serve as president of his local chapter. It was in this role that he invited Kathy Price, a journalist who covered housing for the local newspaper, to speak about how to get a job written about in the newspaper. Within a year they were married on June 9, 1996.
As a NARI president, Bill also invited Craig Savage to speak on using computers in construction. It was 1995, and Craig was then the founding editor of the MacIntosh Construction Forum and Windows on Construction newsletters. Personal computers were a very new but growing trend among a small handful of contractors wishing to streamline their estimating, job costing, and accounting procedures. Builderberg Group, the parent company of the Journal of Light Construction, bought the newsletters and Craig joined the JLC editorial staff in 1996. He encouraged Bill to contribute, and not long after, to participate in the Construction and Business Technology Conference – the first JLC tradeshow that in 1999 would morph into JLC Live. Bill was a member of the Building Clinics crew and spoke regularly at the conference all the way up to the most recent show in Providence, R.I. in March, 2023.
“Believe it or not, Bill was painfully shy when he was younger,” reports Kathy Price-Robinson. “He joined Toastmasters and worked incredibly hard to overcome his shyness and become a better speaker. I’m very proud of what he achieved.” Indeed, it is hard to believe, as Bill was an outgoing speaker who connected with his audiences at JLC Live and extended his outreach in all the training work that defined the latter half of his career.
"Bill wasn't on stage to show off what he knew," reports Don Dunkley, an early member of the CBTC crew teaching framing techniques who took over as the JLC Live show manager in 1999. "He was there to improve other people, to make everyone around him become the best they could be. That's what made him such a great teacher."
In 1999, JLC Live invited SkillsUSA - a partnership between industry and trades education - to conduct local championships at select JLC Live events. Bill was immediately drawn to the organization and for the rest of his life was a tireless supporter as a judge at regional and national SkillsUSA Championships. He also helped recruit judges from his long list of trade contacts and solicit material donations from building product manufacturers. “He was so committed to helping those kids,” said Kathy Price-Robinson, referring to the SkillsUSA participants who represent middle- and high-school technical education programs across the U.S.
To illustrate what moved Bill, and justified the time he devoted to SkillsUSA, Kathy recounted the story of one championship event in which four boys were charged with building a bathroom as a competitive exercise. The boys got into an argument with each other during the competition and walked off the floor. Only one of them returned, vowing to see the contest through by himself. In retelling the tale to his wife, he got very emotional, feeling enormously proud of the boy. “He was so impressed by the courage and determination the young man demonstrated. Bill thrived on seeing people overcome adversity,” Kathy explained. “For Bill, that boy won,” regardless of how he placed in the competition.
“Nothing made him happier than to see someone succeed with the tools he gave them – emotional tools, educational or physical,” his daughter Amy Robinson told me. “Our whole lives, he would always tell us, ‘I’m giving you the tools. It’s up to you to use them.’”
The NOLA Years
Bill relocated to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina ripped across southeast Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. What he saw was a lot of well-intentioned people working hard to rebuild, but he thought they were doing it all wrong, “He called it the ‘second disaster,’” Kathy Price-Robinson said, “And he was going to do everything he could to help avoid that coming. He showed up and asked 'how can I help?'"
Claudette Reichel, a professor at Louisiana State University and founding director of the LaHouse Resource Center at the LSU AgCenter, wrote of Bill’s enormous contributions in a memo to her associates, summarizing much of his work in New Orleans:
Bill moved to Louisiana out of immense compassion to help with recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and never left. He was both a hands-on volunteer in the recovery, and a gifted trainer of housing professionals and trades, particularly in proper construction and installation methods to achieve high performance homes. He had especially detailed expertise in air sealing and windows — both correct installations to avoid common failures, and in rehabilitation of historical windows and homes. He used to quip, “I came to save the world, one window at a time.”
[LSU] Extension initially recruited Bill to do outreach and training for a massive post-Katrina disaster mitigation education contract program, then he continued with us as part-time LaHouse Building Science Educator. Bill produced the five educational LaHouse building systems videos, among others. He trained, with humor and engaging methods, hundreds of EPA certified Lead Safe Renovators, helping to prevent the devastating effects of lead poisoning from 2010 - 2023. He was instrumental in the flood-hardy restoration demonstration project and training of volunteers following the Great Flood of 2016.
Bill was also instrumental in supporting Historic Green and lowernine.org – organizations initially formed to help organize the immense volunteer movement that descended on New Orleans to help with rebuilding homes in the wake of Katrina. Mike Murphy, a HERS rater, solar installer, licensed electrician and licensed hvac contractor, met Bill at one the many presentations Bill gave for the Rebuilding Information Station, a temporary office housing rebuilding educators from LSU AgCenter and the University of New Orleans. “Bill was incredibly gifted at engaging people who had lots of will and enthusiasm, but no building knowledge,” he said. “Bill was able to harness this enthusiasm, reflect it and make it useful.”
In addition to working with volunteers, training with LaHouse, and conducting building performance inspections throughout the greater New Orleans area, Bill founded 504HistoricWindows. “He had a great sensitivity for the historic fabric of New Orleans,” Mike said. “He saw that fabric being destroyed in the rebuilding efforts.” As Mike explained, Bill had gathered a great deal of specialized knowledge, and advocated for rebuilding, rather than replacing, existing windows, which he felt contributed much of the character to the city’s existing homes.
“Bill was tireless in his pursuit of better building practices,” Mike continued. “As long as people were open to learning, he was more patient and giving than you can imagine. He had great empathy for people who worked with their hands as he did his whole life. But one thing he bristled at was saying things like ‘well, this is how it’s always been done.’ That would set him off. If you rolled up with that sort of attitude, instead of actively trying to improve, he had no sympathy for you.”
A Life Well Lived
It’s hard to capture the extent of one person’s life in a single article, especially a person who lived life as fully as Bill did. He was a towering soul – modest, with an immense compassion for others, and a tireless will to make the world a better place. “Integrity,” Kathy said, “is the one word I have that he embodies most. His high moral compass is what has guided me, and even now I can still lean on that.”
I am humbled in my pursuit here to sketch the high points of our dear friend's life. I feel I have barely gestured at the enormity of his soul, and there is no doubt more to say. Please feel free to write to me at [email protected] with remembrances of your own. We plan to update this article in anticipation of honoring him in the March/April issue of JLC that will be distributed at JLC Live.
Bill Robinson's contributions to JLC: