The Lifespan of the Modern Home

A field of McMansions

It is often repeated that houses today do not compare to the houses of the past, that they are not built as well, and will not stand the test of time.  The explosion of home building and McMansions in the 1990s and 2000s that culminated in a housing bubble from which we are still reeling saw the rapid deployment of houses of questionable standards.  So the real question is if these houses deserve their reputation of being poorly made out of cheap materials, or if it just nostalgia for the overbuilt wooden houses of yore.  Well, according to a recent report from msn, there is some truth to the sentiment, though the houses have made vast improvements of houses of the past in certain criteria.

We learned that homes — and homebuilding — have changed enormously. Just 50 years ago, most homes were made by small, jack-of-all-trades builders. Today, large corporations predominate, and most homes are built by contractors specializing in particular trades. Materials and techniques are different, too. An old home’s strength comes from its big timbers made of dense, old-growth wood. Built when fuel was cheap, old homes leak heat from windows, doors and cracks.

Most homes built today get their strength from engineering principles, not massive timbers. Built correctly, new homes are weather-tight systems of interrelated parts, each highly engineered to do a specialized job. Whether new homes perform as intended depends greatly on whether these highly specialized systems are assembled correctly. Each component has technical requirements that, if ignored, can void its warranty and sabotage the home’s quality.

It is well worth going through the whole slideshow in detail, but here are the main points of difference between modern and historic home building, and whether or not modern houses will survive 50 years.

  • Wood today is worse that that of the past, is weaker and less dimensionally stable
  • Craftsmanship is worse today, especially because of the specialized skills needed to install some modern materials
  • Homes are more affordable today*
  • Longevity is worse today, and homes are only built with the expectation to last for 50 years
  • Doors are better today, stronger than hollow core and lighter/cheaper than solid wood
  • Fiberglass is an improvement over some of the materials of the past
  • Windows are better today, with improved thermal qualities
  • Waterproofing of houses is better
  • Trusses use less material today than those of the past, but are more susceptible to fire
  • Siding is better today, with dropping costs for improved thermal and weather performance
  • Roofing nails are better today, but are not widely used because they cost slightly more
  • Joists are as strong with less materials today, but like trusses do not hold up well in a fire
  • Roofing materials are better today
  • Paint has improved, with the removal of lead and more recently VOCs

*I do question this finding, which equates ownership to affordability, which I do not think is a direct correlation.  The subprime mortgage crisis happened because people were buying homes that they could not afford, so saying that more people owning homes means that homes are more affordable seems dubious.  While this report focused on specific materials and innovations for the most part, some distinct trends to become apparent.  The quality of craftsmanship and the overall expectations for a house in the long term have been lowered, but that there have been significant innovations in materials, and there is a better understanding of there importance and effect of insulating and creating a tight thermal envelope for a house.  The problem is that it seems that these new energy efficient materials and fixtures are being installed in a subpar manner, on an overall structure whose expected lifespan is a matter of decades.  There is a painful irony in using products that are guaranteed for for longer than the house itself, and that they are not even being installed correctly.

Nostalgia for a bygone time lets us imagine that all old homes were made by master craftsmen. But that’s not true. Remodelers uncover a wide range of craftsmanship in old homes. “I can show you many old houses with sloppy craftsmanship, rooms out of square, foundations that are wildly out of plumb,” Carter says. He finds sloppy work in about 15% of the old houses he’s worked on. But Carter guesses — from the “staggering” number of owners e-mailing him with complaints — that today some 40% of new homes have problems. Poor craftsmanship is more common today, Carlysle agrees. A Consumer Reports study in this decade found serious defects in 15% of new homes.

Probably the most surprising thing in the report was learning that the new, lighter, more efficient truss and joist systems are much more susceptible to fire.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside: Lightweight trusses are prone to collapsing quickly in a fire. “This type of engineered floor (and roof) support system provides substantial strength, but has been demonstrated to fail quickly under fire conditions,” writes Ed Hartin, who trains firefighters in fire suppression and safety, in his blog for professionals, CFBT-US. “Legacy lumber” is harder to burn because it has more mass and less surface area. Engineered trusses are the opposite — more surface in relation to their mass — and so they ignite and burn faster.

Even though people are saying that the McMansion is dead, and that the demand for cheaply built, oversized homes has dwindled, they have clearly effected what people view as the ideal house, and you are starting to see LEED certified, green homes that are mimicking the grandiose posturing.

There is going to be a continued backlash against the poor craftsmanship of American homes, much like what US automakers faced after instituting planned obsolesce in the 70s and 80s.  So it seems like what we should expect to see is the equivalent of Japanese imports of houses, an inexpensive, quality product that ultimately shows the failings of the predominate paradigm.

Via msn, image via bubbleinfo

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