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Thread: Obvious question, obvious answer - about building practices

  1. #1
    Dec 2008
    the delta

    Obvious question, obvious answer - about building practices

    This may be the oldest question in Planning but why when things were much more expensive and tedious to build were grand houses and building created and now that things are relativity inexpensive are houses and buildings so bland?

    I look around and excluding the new mansions of the very wealthy it seems like all the ornate and intricate houses are in older areas which now tend to be more run down. I always look at crown molding in rooms as an example - 100 years ago when it was harder to produce most molding was intricate and detailed and now that it is easy to make it is bland, unoriginal, and usually press-board.

    People say the answer is because developers want to get things up cheaply and quickly to make the most money but I see a few problems with that.

    1. Were developers and contractors not motivated by money before Levittown? Was this development the turning point in construction history?

    2. Why / when did home owners start accepting non-detailed houses as acceptable? Why do many towns have poorer people in beautiful homes and middle-class people in bland ranch homes?

    Please be aware I am not speaking to specific well-off neighborhoods like Boston's Beacon Hill or Saint Paul's Summit Avenue for this question but rather the entire town in general.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
    Dec 2003
    Heaven or Las Vegas
    1. Were developers and contractors not motivated by money before Levittown? Was this development the turning point in construction history?
    I believe they were motivated by money, but the understanding was that the monetary rewards would come by providing a better product, which was dictated by social values. It was not really practical to live far away from work, so homes were closer together and funds were available for details. That was exchanged for more square feet, large lots, and landscaping. As home developers became larger companies and went public, the need to maintain profits that would boost stock prices became more important in order to fund new developments and company growth.

    Also, fine carpentry became a better-paid occupation. Apparently they decided it was no longer worth the extra cost.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
    Jul 2005
    Lone Star State
    Survival bias... all the crappy stuff fell down years ago. Then demographics or fashions change and the surviving old houses are the less attractive neighborhood to most. 95% of anything is crap, with modern houses we see that 95% so the 5% seems rare. Old stuff the 95% is gone so they all seem nice. Same thing applies to mutual funds and musical acts...

    Non-detailed houses... dunno, maybe everything else is so good now? There was only so many ways to show off back in the old days. Plus there was much much more visiting and entertaining at the house so it was more important.

  4. #4
    Feb 2002
    Athens, Georgia
    I am often impressed at how well built and detailed even the most humble shotgun house was built back in the day- not to mention the middle class and upper class houses. I think that the answer lies in construction workers who took pride in their work and took advantage of the slower pace of life to really get the details right. Nobody expected everything finished in the blink of an eye. There were no power tools, everything took longer and more thoughtfulness. The contruction workers lived and worked in the same communities where they built and knew that reputation mattered to the future welfare of their families. It wasn't Ok for their work to start falling apart after a few months. Unlike many today, they wouldn't be long gone.

    Somewhere along the way we (the public) got the idea that disposable materials were best and we weren't going to stay anywhere forever leaving our property to our children and grandchildren for generations to come- so what did it matter if the homeplace fell down within 30 years. Who wanted to live in those old, out-dated places anyway. I would love to see a return to doing things the right way with that level of care and detail but I doubt it will happen. How do you return to that sense of pride in workmanship with a public that readily accepts "good enough for now" and is increasingly too young to remember to remember anything better.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian JimPlans's avatar
    Aug 2006
    Gone to a better place (in my mind)
    Many thoughts:

    First, I have lived in 100+ year old baloon-frame houses. They may have had some nice architectural details, but I never lost a marble in one because I always knew what corner of the room it would roll to. Many modern building materials and methods are better than in the past, though others are not.

    Second, we used to have lots of old-growth forests that supplied millions of board-feet of high quality hardwoods. We've cut all that down, so we're relegated to pine and human creations like OSB and glue-lam beams. You should have seen the inside of the walls in my 1922 house - real 2x4s (measuring 2 by 4 inches), 1x10 hard pine boards underlaying cedar siding that, when I replaced some, was so thick I had to double-up on the replacement cedar just to match the depth. You can still build a house with these materials if you want to pay two to three times the cost. Most people don't.

    Third, there has been a real loss in skilled trades. My father was a plasterer (a real one who could do decorative work and molding), a profession that is about gone. The desire to reduce cost and speed production creaed new methods and materials that reduced or eliminated the need for skilled labor, so jobs in those professions dried up. They were replaced by factory-built components that can be assembled by semi-skilled labor. BTW, all that Victorian gingerbread trim? Most of it was factory-milled and assembled onsite, because it was too expensive to hire skilled labor to do it on a custom basis even then.

    Fourth, modernism. Blame people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius for rmaking Victorian-style ornamentation a thing of the past. That lack of crown molding is as much an architectural choice as an economic one (especially now that builders can use inexpensive products like polystyrene crown molding).

    As for survival bias, I'm sure it plays a part, but I grew up in a state (Massachusetts)where the median age of housing units is 1957 and almost 1 million of the 2.7 million housing units were built before 1940, so I can tell you that old houses will certainly last as long as they get a modicum of care. Highway building and urban renewal had a much larger effect on wiping out older housing units than simple aging ever did.

  6. #6
    You can buy crown molding today, but putting it into a less than old house looks creepy and silly.

    I think there is a huge amount of excellent construction going on today. Living in Massachusetts, one can see thousands of old buildings that were not so well constructed.

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