Plaster Screens, or the Long-Term Value of Tiny, Inexpensive Fixes

4 min. read
March 22, 2024

Charlie Munger once told a story about his uncle Fred and more specifically, about plaster screens. Certain tiny, inexpensive fixes have significant long-term value yet are quite easy to ignore. I’ll tell you the story, unpack the concept, and end with a question.

Frederick Stott graduated from the Harvard School of Architecture and had a successful architectural practice in Omaha during the 1920s. When the Great Depression began in August 1929, Omaha’s construction industry ground to a halt. Fred had no work, so he moved to California and began doing drafting work to make ends meet. He went from making $8,000 to $10,000 a year to making $108 per month.

When FDR’s administration created the FHA in 1936, Fred took a civil service example, got the top score, and became the FHA’s chief architect in Los Angeles.

Part of his job involved setting codes and standards for builders, and he made the use of plaster screens mandatory.

Before gypsum board, or drywall, replaced plaster in the 1950s and 1960s, most homes in the United States had plaster walls. The issue with plaster is capillary action. Plaster and other porous construction materials can absorb water molecules from the ground, and due to water’s surface tension, it can rise through tubelike spaces, or capillaries, and stick. This collected moisture weakens plaster’s structural integrity, causes stains, and eventually attracts mold.

The preemptive fix was rather simple: Put a screen of waterproof material at the bottom of plaster walls to prevent capillary action.

Charlie Munger implied that builders under Fred’s jurisdiction weren’t happy about this required extra step, yet it helped to make walls and buildings stand another one hundred years.

This idea of plaster screens struck me. They didn’t require specialized knowledge, they weren’t difficult to install, and they weren’t expensive. However, the benefit of using them was undeniable and disproportionately big.

That discrepancy between cost and benefit got me to thinking about the equivalent of plaster screens in other industries, including freelancing and consulting. What tiny, incremental improvements produce a massive return on effort and expense?

Here’s a short, incomplete list:

  • Sending weekly status report emails so that clients are never left wondering (or worrying) about what’s happening with their projects. Nature abhors a vaccum, and in the absence of facts, some clients prone to anxiety will make up an untrue story.
  • Record a video message. Nonverbal communication gets lost in emails and written documents. You can strengthen your positioning as a likable, trustworthy expert if you email a new prospect a short video message before a discovery call or include one when you send over your proposal.
  • Don’t make decisions on the phone. I heard this one from Shane Parrish who heard it from Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, who said that most of the decisions he regretted were ones he made quickly, on the fly, perhaps because someone was pressuring him to decide right then.
  • Wait twenty-four hours before sending that email. Better yet, pick up the phone. A mentor once told me that email isn’t the best medium for communicating frustration. My own experience has proven him correct. Whether a client was upset with me or I was upset with a client, I’ve always found it more effective to talk in real-time after I’ve gathered my thoughts and let them cure overnight.
  • Surprise clients with a coffee gift card. If you ask them to fill out a questionnaire for you or write content for the new About page you’re designing, $10 can be the difference between a delightful thirty-minute “break” and yet another task to fulfill.

Or, if you prefer a different industry, consider Bruno’s, a pizzeria in Port St. Joe, Florida, my family visited. I ordered a cheese pizza, and the guy at the cash register told me that we could help ourselves to drinks at the soda fountain. My daughter got a lemonade, and that small, unexpected act of generosity turned the wait into a memorable moment. (I’m sharing it with you, aren’t I?)

Plaster screens were a cheap preventative that saved Los Angeles millions, if not billions, of dollars for decades. Such tiny, inexpensive fixes often seem inconvenient at first. They’re easy to ignore. Yet, if you can like the Chief Architect make them a rule, then you can reap the long-term rewards.

What simple, inexpensive fix, if you were to use it consistently, would make you $100,000 eventually? How can you implement it this week and make a habit of it moving forward?

When you’re ready, here are ways I can help you:

  1. Free Money. A pricing and money mindset guide for freelance creatives. If you’re unsure about your freelance pricing, this is the book for you.
  2. Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make  6 figures as a freelancer.
  3. Custom Business Roadmap. Gain clarity, confidence, and momentum in your freelance or consulting business.
  4. Business Redesign. Raise your effective hourly rate, delegate with confidence, and free up 40 hours a month.
  5. Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.

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Austin L Church portrait photo.

About the Author,
Austin L. Church

Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (, a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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