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The myth of ‘We don’t build houses like we used to’

The common lament misses crucial context about the style trends and building materials of the past

“We just don’t build houses like we used to.” Whether we’re criticizing an individual home or a wave of boxy buildings, it’s a common lament. Sometimes it’s a comment on quality—an assertion that houses aren’t as durable today as they once were—and sometimes it’s a comment on style—a belief that we don’t build houses that are as timeless, tasteful, or beautiful as they used to be. It’s something we say to defend the types of houses we grew up in or dream of someday living in.

It’s a statement that contains some truth, but it also misses crucial context about the material conditions, functionality, and style trends of the past.

When comparing today’s houses to yesterday’s, it’s important to consider labor, production, and technology. Often, when people talk about how much better old houses are than new houses (in the U.S., “old” refers to houses built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, since there aren’t many surviving houses from the 18th century or earlier), they invoke a change in the nature of labor: The houses of yesteryear were built by “skilled craftsmen,” and today’s houses are built by “unskilled labor.” These descriptions elide the fact that many of the “great buildings” in our canon of architecture were built by under- and even unpaid laborers. Slave labor was instrumental in the creation of the pre-Civil War traditional architecture of such cities as Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Construction has also always involved a mix of skilled and so-called unskilled labor. In the 19th century, the rise of unions for craftsmen and construction workers—a response to the harassment, injury, and danger that workers, many of them immigrants, faced on the job—created an environment for well-paid, skilled workers that still exists today. At the same time, many of the beloved houses of the 19th century and early 20th century, such as pattern book houses, kit houses, foursquares, and bungalows, were built by local carpenters, contractors, and builders who had small teams of employees or hired local day laborers. Often these houses were even built by the completely unskilled person who bought the house.

There’s not much difference between how we built popular speculative single-family housing back then and how we build it now. The “death of craft,” meaning the rarity or end of certain skills such as plastering, stuccoing, or custom architectural details, has more to do with the introduction of newer, more flexible building materials such as plywood and drywall, which were more affordable and easier to install than plaster. The “death of craft” is also often invoked to bemoan the loss of “original craftsmanship” at the hand of mass production. But almost all of the ornate stickwork and architectural detailing from the mid-19th century to today has been mass produced (lest we forget, the Gothic cathedrals of France, which, of course, were built without any kind of prefabrication, took centuries to build).

Architecture is inherently linked to the types of building materials available at the time. In the 19th century, available stone and vast swaths of old-growth forest made heavy masonry and balloon framing techniques very economical. When we depleted the old-growth forests of the Midwest, we had to shift from balloon framing (used in many 19th-century wooden houses), which relied on the relative abundance of long vertical pieces of wood cut from very tall trees, to platform framing, which utilized shorter boards. To build with the masonry styles of the 19th century today is possible but prohibitively expensive. To note a recent example, a row of townhouses in Chicago, built in a traditional Italianate style utilizing large amounts of limestone, were so expensive to construct that to compensate, they rent for over $13,000 per month. And while their exteriors may be desirable, many of the buildings of the 19th and early 20th century used a variety of materials we consider quite undesirable today, such as lead paint and asbestos.

In order to compensate for the growing expense of both extracting and importing building materials whose local reserves have been exhausted, at the turn of the 20th century, and later after World War II, new, more economical building materials were developed, including cinder blocks to replace masonry slabs, concrete as a stucco alternative, asbestos, aluminum (and later vinyl and fiber cement) to replace wood siding and shingles, and asphalt roof shingles to replace slate. Modern framing, sheetrocking, and insulation techniques made the installation of brick and stone veneers easier, and these replaced expensive masonry-based structural walls.

Postwar developments in building technology, such as modern insulation and acoustical and fire engineering, made new buildings considerably quieter, warmer, and less prone to fire than their predecessors. Stricter building codes, standards, laws, and regulations, often cited by architects as being an impediment to architectural expression and affordability, have also succeeded in making new buildings safer, more energy efficient, and more accessible to people with disabilities.

But many homebuyers still loathe new materials. Many of them, including EIFS (an exterior insulation and finish system that resembles “stucco” board) and vinyl or fiber cement siding, imitate more expensive materials that are still in existence, and the newer imitations are infrequently used and never celebrated (unlike steel or concrete) by the more glamorous world of “high” architecture.

Another reason—perhaps the biggest reason—these materials are disliked is because they were frequently sold as being “low or no maintenance,” when the truth is there’s no such thing as a no- or low-maintenance material. A building is only as good as its maintenance—this is true of both the rambling Victorian manor and the market-rate condo building built in 2002. When proper maintenance of a building is infrequent or nonexistent, the building will age significantly faster and look much worse. “No-maintenance” vinyl siding looks pretty bad if warped pieces are not replaced, or if it is never powerwashed, or if it is simply bleached by the sun, but so too does the wood siding on a craftsman bungalow if it is never refinished, treated, or painted. Marble slabs and EIFS are equally prone to discoloration from excessive moisture. No one doubts that stone slabs last longer than fake stucco board, but both shine their brightest when properly taken care of.

Design choices are also linked to the activities we pursue in our homes. In the late 19th century, due to the end of slavery, the development of the suburb, and the beginning of commuting thanks to technology such as the streetcar, live-in labor was quickly replaced with day labor in wealthy and upper-middle-class households. As a result, new houses built by elite and middle-income patrons were smaller than their predecessors. Single-family housing became more affordable for the emerging managerial and middle classes (and later, after improvements in labor rights, the working classes), resulting in the development of familiar urban and suburban housing stock such as mid-income townhouses, foursquares, and bungalows.

New infrastructure such as indoor plumbing and electricity further shaped the needs of new housing and the adaptation of old housing. The proliferation of the automobile resulted in new structures such as garages and carports and allowed people to more easily live further and further from cities. Changes in labor (the housewife replacing hired help) and consumption habits favored larger kitchens and living rooms and an increasing number of specialized hobby rooms, bathrooms, and places for storage. To accomodate this growing list of needs, houses, in turn, became—and continue to become—larger. We don’t build houses like we used to because many people no longer need or want exactly the kinds of houses we used to have.

For the most part, most working- and middle-class housing is built speculatively by contractors and builders who either work with a buyer choosing from existing plans or build “on spec” for later purchase. Single-family housing in the 19th century was built through a similar process. And most economical new single-family housing looks similar to, if not slightly larger than, the ranches, Cape Cods, and colonial revivals from previous generations. What’s changed is that upper-middle-class and upper-class housing is no longer the common domain of architects, as it once was, and is instead the realm of custom builders who indulge the client’s most capricious desires (like that 4-foot-tall gothic window above the front door). There are, of course, many builders who take great pride in creating a cohesive, integrated whole from a list of demands, and it is unfortunate that the proliferation of the McMansion has reflected unkindly on the non-architect builder. However, after modernism, which had a rich tradition in building residential architecture for all income levels, the focus of many architecture firms shifted to more lucrative civic and commercial projects.

While there are a handful of wonderful postmodern residences, and while a handful of architects continue the tradition of building fine homes, there are very few residences being built for anyone other than the ultra-wealthy, and almost none being built in the reigning deconstructivist and parametric styles of today’s big architects. This disconnection of architectural culture from the residential, indeed, from the culture of homemaking itself, is perhaps the most poignant truth within the statement “We don’t build like we used to.”

Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.


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