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Why has the quality of brick buildings declined in the last 100 years? (greenbuildingadvisor.com)
406 points by nkurz on Nov 6, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 277 comments

The quality of modern construction (not necessarily brick) is a big pet peeve of mine and something I keep looking for answers.

The way I see it, some time right after WWII, people in US suddenly decided to live in a poorly built and ugly looking dwellings regardless of their income level. It is especially easy to see when looking at NYC buildings, some rentals are even explicitly advertized as "pre-war".

Examples of annoying trends in modern construction:

  - Low "hobbit" ceilings. 
  - Short door frames.
  - Tiny windows.
  - Nearly non-existent noise/vibration insulation
Even looking at materials used for construction today, I can't figure out why everyone thinks that drywall-on-sticks is acceptable? Literally every multi-story home I've been in felt hollow and shaky if you jump on the 2nd floor because there's no mass anywhere.

This is clearly not a cost issue, I have taken tours looking at brand-new multi-MM homes in Austin, TX just for fun. While they all had top-notch appliances, finishes and a gazilion of square feet and bedrooms, they were also built using the same "toy" materials and used generally similar architectural patters as middle class homes.

What caused this change? It's like our collective mind suddenly stopped caring about tall doors, 10ft ceilings and solid feel of floors we walk on.

>>>This is clearly not a cost issue

Nope, that's exactly it - it's cheaper and faster for the builder to frame a house small and simply. They've found that people spend money for houses based on location, size, and the visible stuff (like nice paint jobs and shiny appliances). They could spend twice as long as 40% more in materials and the home would sell for 2% more - not worth their time.

To chime in, even in places where people are willing to pay a premium for construction materials and architecture (like in sismic areas) there is numerous cases of the builder cheaping out and osometimes illegally trying to get away with fewer material.

The last months there was again a case of a building constructor using less structural elements than it was legally required to, also violating the number specified in the blueprintS.

It seems like one of those cascading series of perverse incentives up and down the value chain. The subcontractors want to cut corners with the contractor. The contractor wants to cut corners with the developer. The developer wants to cut corners on the project in general, passing the headache onto the buyer at some point after the eventual sale. Almost no one in this mess has incentives aligned with doing things correctly.

If buying and moving homes were a more frequent event, buyers would play more "rounds" of this game and eventually become wiser to the ground rules of it. Reputation would start to matter, and developers, contractors, et al., would need to work harder to ensure they didn't get dinged. As it now stands, except in the luxury market, really, where people custom build homes, no one cares about a developer or contractor's reputation. So they don't have any reputational risk on the line. So they happily cut corners wherever they can get away with it.

(And I'm willing to bet that even the luxury/custom buyer barely has a clue when it comes to evaluating the quality of construction and materials.)

Some of them "roll" their business over every few years - starting a new company, transferring to it all assets (and maybe some liabilities), rehiring the workers, and then shutting down the old company. This way they get a new name and reputation as often as most people get a new house.

Back in 1999, an acquaintance of mine bought a $2.3MM home in an exclusive neighborhood. As he was driving me and a few friends through his neighborhood, he explained that all the houses could be knocked down and rebuilt if desired. The price included location, security (theater really, but hey, it sells), footage, looks and fancy appliances. Not quality.

A combination of three things, IMHO:

1. Labor specialization, meaning less of the home-buying market is savvy enough in the "handyman" sense to tell the difference. 2. A move away from building the thing you're going to own, and building things that other people will buy later. 3. Minimum standards for housing construction.

The third needs to be explained more - instead of aiming towards "building a good home", the construction industry aims to build the cheapest thing that they are legally allowed to sell (ie, meets building codes). While building codes do mean that there's a quality floor, competitive pressure means that nobody can consistently exceed the floor without getting out-competed by people who aim to barely meet it.

>"...less of the home-buying market is savvy enough in the "handyman" sense to tell the difference"

True. I don't know how the market works in the US but in the UK what typically happens is a developer owns the land but borrows short term money to build on it.

The incentive, therefore, is to complete the project as quickly and cheaply as possible. Residential houses are designed for ease of building not for quality.

A typical buyer will have a 90-95% mortgage and the completed house is signed off by a surveyor who is engaged by the mortgage provider. The only real concern is if the house will still be standing in 25 years time and nothing else. In effect it's a rubber stamping process.

The buyer is often too emotionally involved in the concept of owning a home to care less.

No sane person would complete the purchase of a new car if defects in build quality were so glaringly obvious but the same people do it with houses every day?

Yeah, that's roughly how it works in the US. Pre-WW1, though, there was much more of "buy land and materials, build a house yourself" going on. Like, sometimes you'd basically clear the trees from a plot and use the lumber from that to build the house.

That's what I meant by labor specialization - on the home-buying side, much fewer people can build a home or participate meaningfully in construction and remodeling.

I think a key difference is that you drive the car everyday. Even if you have no clue about the inner workings of the car, you have a direct, frequent, operating relationship with it. You understand its basic principles and functionality in a hands-on way (literally). If unseen defects are present in a car, they'd reveal themselves to you in short order.

The same cannot be said for houses. You live in a house everyday, but you don't have a true working or operating relationship with it unless you're very handy (which many home buyers these days are not). The car has a direct input/output operating cycle that you control; the house does not. It's harder to suss defects out because the house doesn't 'run' on them per se. You only learn about the defects when the house fails in one way or another. That may be two days into the inspection period, or it may be two years after closing.

Yup. When Hurricane Andrew blew through South Florida in 1992, homes in the direct path that were built prior to modern building standards survived, while more modern homes (I think post-1980) were unlivable (or totally gone, depending on the area).

Part of that was declining building standards (go too long between hurricanes and yes, people get complacent).

But another aspect, I think, is a shift in home ownership---we no longer "own" a home for an extended period of time (average length of owning a home in the US is seven years). Yes, my grandparents eventually paid off their mortgages, but nowadays I think that's pretty rare. Why buy quality when you aren't going to own for very long?

I've heard this hypothesis before, but I don't think frequent moving is the correct explanation. After all, moving out of a house means moving into another one. Furthermore, Europeans today continue to build with brick and other masonry and, if I were to guess, relocate at rates that are comparable enough to those in the US. The more likely explanation has to do with American culture. Not only do Americans value quantity relative to quality to a higher degree than Europeans, but when American land was being settled, it was a. heavily wooded and b. occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when stone and brick urban fortifications were being torn down in Europe. By contract, Europe was by this time heavily deforested (e.g., England imported its wood from countries such as Poland to meet the needs of its growing navy).

The theory of ownership in the Washington area, as explained by a realtor at the end of the 1980s, but probably commonly held for 15 or 20 years before that, was that you bought, held for a few years to get back your closing costs and let the property appreciate some, then moved on to something more expensive. One can see why a realtor might think well of this idea.

The one thing I will say for modern houses is that the wiring will generally be better and with outlets better spaced. They might be better insulated. But my goodness, the quality of the workmanship and often materials. We watched a house going up next to us, and had to think that big is a lot cheaper than good.

It is very much a cost issue, although a small one in terms of the overall price of the house. However, money that goes into 2x6 vs 2x4 studs, drywall, doors, insulation, windows comes out of the overall budget. People shop by price because they have to. Fancy appliances vs sturdy floors? People will pick fancy appliances 99% of the time.

I built a few dozen homes and only once had a client request 2x6 construction. I tried to sell it on all the others, citing sturdiness and better insulating properties, but everyone looked at the features it excluded and went for flimsy 2x4 builds.

It gets important if you are a developer building subdivisions of homes. $10k saved on every house is $big profit. 25 home subs is $250k+ savings...very much an issue.

My own house is 2x6, and properly insulated top to bottom. My neighbor's slap job summer cooling bill is not quite double mine. Close to same sqft and same interior ac temp setting.

Mostly I'm amused that Americans never got the end of the Three Little Pigs story and still build houses out of wood.

I read once that buildings are the best thing to cheat on the construction of because each layer of underspecced materials is hidden by the next layer.

Wood is a renewable and a carbon trap. On site, dirt is a good choice for a building material. You can also use it to bulk mass. You just need a digger and some grunt work. See building with rammed earth.

I've a friend who has just added to his 17th century thatched cottage with like materials: oak timber frame, timber cladding and wattle and daub, which is dirt and wood/hay/hair. It's lovely and solid. Sadly planning officials insisted on an over the top concrete foundation that negated all his hard work with his sympathetic build.

The wood is good!

What would you estimate is the payoff time in heating/cooling costs?

This is not just an issue with housing. Virtually EVERY product is built with less long-term quality.

I collect antique espresso machines. Some of these are highly sought after because they use big, heavy, high quality components: big brass boilers, copper piping, stainless steel enclosures and big brass groupheads. Compare that with many flimsy, plastic machines today (which rarely last more than a couple years), and it's no wonder there is a market for these older machines.

    > Virtually EVERY product
Well not just physical products. Flights are another good example.

    > Compare that with many flimsy, plastic machines today
... that are available at a cheap accessible price. It's still entirely possible to buy espresso machines that are built like tanks, or ones that have lots of expensive electronics, and so on. The high-end of the market has not disappeared...

    > it's no wonder there is a market for these older machines.
Market being the operative word here. We've seen a spread in the market to where the cheap end is now affordable by everyone, and the expensive end is even better than (and more expensive than) the best of the best was 20 years ago. Hard to see how this isn't a good thing, except from an environmental perspective.

> the expensive end is even better than (and more expensive than) the best of the best was 20 years ago

I'm not sure about this part, unless you are very careful in what you're shopping for, and knowledgeable about it. One Achilles heel of a lot of current appliances is that there are now circuit boards everywhere, which are a common point of premature failure. If the computerized part of your appliance fails (due to a power surge, capacitor aging, etc.), the device is effectively bricked in a difficult-to-repair way, even if all the mechanical parts are still fine. One option is to buy all-mechanical high-end models, which works with some appliances (espresso machines) but is basically impossible with others (washing machines).

You couldn't buy a washing machine 20 years ago that was anywhere near as energy efficient, kind to your clothes, could figure out the right amount of detergent or softener to use, or had features like remote operation so your clothes don't sit damp all day. Durability is not the only mark of quality.

I hope you know that energy efficients often means using motors with less Watt so that e.g. your washing machine will take longer to complete the washing cycle and with less hot water. The same with vacuum cleaners, eletronic kettles, etc. Eletro motors aren't a new invention, even brushless motors are there for some decades. Not every energy saving idea is a good idea. Often it's better to buy a few photovoltaic panels yourself and buy high quality brands that last decades (e.g. Miele washing machines). I would buy a 2000W vacuum cleaner that can clean my house in 30min than a 1000W vacuum cleaner that is less efficient in cleaning the floor so it takes at least twice as long to really clean the floor. In the end you often trade time for peak power usage. Sure, power grid operators like that.

In published tests, cleaning ability is not correlated at all to power over a certain level. Most 2000W cleaners are older models, since research and development has focused on energy efficiency for the past decade, so they are even likely to be worse. I could easily construct a 10 kW model for you, and it's going to run very hot.

(There was this EU introduced power cap for domestic vacuum cleaners the other year, accompanied with articles how you should hurry up and buy one of the powerful ones before they were forbidden. I was in the market for one, and scoured every independent test I could find where I understood the language, and the result were the same: the modern ones using less power picked up small particles better. As soon as you have a powerful enough engine other things start to matter. That's when I sighed deeply about journalistic integrity and bought one of the newer models.)

You describe an important problem. Consumers keep buying older models, which are objectively worse, because they want a scalar value for "betterness". It's just like megapixels, where you stuff a 20 megapixel sensor behind a plastic lens and consumers buy it because big numbers are good.

Some devices like a electric kettle are incredibly simple in how the works and you can't beat the real world physics, less Watt means more waiting time. You can only improve the design of vacuum cleaner and washing machines so much, a half as powerful device (Watt) won't make up the loss by a far superior design. Don't get me wrong I am for energy efficient devices, but I have an engineering degree and know a lot of the little tricks, and the average Joe falls for every marketing trick. These recent laws that were introduced by lobby-orgs aren't that great.

Don't let your engineering degree stand in the way of finding out the facts. You claimed a 2 kW vacuum cleaner would clean in half the time, and there's plenty of data that suggests otherwise.

The claim that cleaning time is linear to motor effect is unrealistic at best. There is an optimum effect for the nozzle. A 10 kW engine wouldn't clear your floors any faster than a 1 kW one, and definitively not ten times faster. The best (household, not for garages or anything like that) vacuum cleaner commercially available on the market is likely closer to 1 kW than 2 kW.

You think only "average" people falls for marketing tricks, but this superficial knowledge of the engineering involved actually makes you an easier prey for the marketing trick that more powerful motors makes for a better product. That bigger numbers are better is one of the easiest marketing schemes ever.

You're right. But...

...my dad's top-end washing machine bought 25 years ago is still going strong, working without a hitch. Had simple maintenance once. All the while I'm about to get my third model in 14 years.

Survivorship bias. People point to a 25-year old washing machine and say "look, it still works!" but are unaware of millions of other 25-year old washing machines that are currently in our landfills.

I'm talking about a specific model of washer. My dad did his research, talked to a bunch of maintenance guys who repaired machines for a living, and ended up buying the best built machine that was being sold. Recently I bought a couple of used Snap-on hand tools that were made in the early 90's. I know how tough they are. They are just pretty damn well built. In 20 years if I remark how great they're still going, that's not actually survivorship bias. Some things are supposed to last this long.

Fair enough, but this also has a lot to do with cost - your dad probably spent a large chunk of his monthly salary(if not all of it) on a washing machine, but I spent literally 2-days worth on a brand new one when I got one couple months ago. If it dies in 3 years I won't even bother repairing it - I'll just get another one, it's too cheap not to.

Snap-on is fantastic. If anyone ever sees any for sale at yard sales - even broken, rusted-up, mostly junk tools, buy them. If you can find a distributor, they honor the lifetime warranty.

Craftsman tools used to be the same, although you have to be careful - they've started mixing in the cheapo junk lines and putting the Craftsman name on them, and those don't necessarily have the same warranty policy.

More specifically, anything branded Craftsman Evolv is guaranteed to be garbage. I've seen Craftsman Evolv tools that are identical to ones at Harbor Freight, but at twice the price.

FWIW, replacing the circuit board on a washing machine is pretty common and easy.

I've only tried once, but I wasn't able to find anyone who could do that when mine died. It's possible the repair people I tried were just not knowledgeable, but they claimed you can't get those kinds of parts for older discontinued models (it was somewhere around 8-9 years old at the time it got knocked out by a lightning storm, while a washing machine mechanically should last ~15-20 years).

I do know someone whose entire business is reverse-engineering bricked old devices, sticking in a new circuit board with custom software. But it's expensive enough to hire him that his customers are all businesses with expensive equipment they want rescued, mostly 1990s vintage produced by now-defunct companies.

We just got one pretty cheap for our 20-years-old Miele, it came from a machine that had something else break.

Did you try eBay? I see 50 for just one manufacturer on ebay.co.uk, a mixture of new and second-hand.

    We've seen a spread in the market to where the cheap end
    is now affordable by everyone, and the expensive end is
    even better than (and more expensive than) the best of 
    the best was 20 years ago.
I've worked for a household-name European electronics manufacturer about 10 years ago (as an embedded programmer). Afaik their high-end offering differed from the low-end ones mostly or entirely in cosmetic details.

It's called Planned Obsolescence:


Came here to say exactly that. Not sure why folks wouldn't think that the same philosophy which overtook manufactured goods post-war wouldn't also apply to construction.

I mean, I'm sat here in my living room, place was built 1798 (relatively modern), near as damnit everything is original. Stone floors. Stone fireplaces. Stone walls. Lath and plaster ceilings. Lime plaster.

They knew what they were doing, this shit is built to last.

These days, they also know what they're doing, but a house has a shelf life of 30 years, so you can tear it down later, not feel bad, and stimulate the construction industry. In theory. I. Practice people live in leaky shoeboxes made of twigs, paper and tar.

Finally, the insurance industry drives this. Ever try insuring a 100 year old slate roof in America? Good luck with that. They'll insist you rip it off and replace it with tar shingles, because no roof more than 20 years old can be any good.

My other property has a 13th century stone roof (limestone, stacked), and it's barely been maintained and is in perfect nick after 600+ years.

I've never understood why people put asphalt shingles on new houses, instead of putting on steel roofing. It might be a hair cheaper, but the difference between shingle and the screw-on steel panels is not that much.

A.) Snow doesn't come off of shingles worth a damn unless you have a wicked pitch on your roof. So you have to get up and shovel off the roof, or risk icedams, leaks, and potentially the whole roof collapsing if you have really heavy snowfall.

B.) Shingles only last about 20-30 years. Steel roofing lasts a lifetime. You might have to repaint it once in a great while.

Steel roofs are a lot louder when it's raining and such, so it might have something to do with that. Also, they don't look as good (not so much for me personally, but in general) as a shingled roof. No question that they last a lot longer. I very often see large garages and barns built with steel roofs.

You should never have to shovel your roof; you should have a vented attic or enough insulation to avoid ice dams, and the structure should be strong enough to support the snow load.

That would be a great ideal, but I've never seen it in practice. Probably with the truss-style roofs that are used commonly now, the snow weight is less of a problem than with the older rafter-style.

I'm unclear what point ventilation or insulation in the attic would have to do with ice dams... In my experience, it's caused by snow that doesn't get removed, which then melts, seeps down to the roof, and refreezes, with the texture of the shingles providing a greater surface area to freeze against.

All things being equal, it's nice to have a steel roof that will warm up on a sunny day and have all the snow slide off.

See: http://buildingscience.com/documents/insights/bsi-046-dam-ic...

The snow melts because of heat coming from the inside the house. [1]

So if you keep your roof cold through insulation and ventilation, you don't need to remove the snow (as long as the roof can handle it structurally)

[1]: http://www.erdc.usace.army.mil/Portals/55/docs/CEERD-RV/CEER... [pdf]

Where are you? The new construction I see in the Washington DC area has none of these things, whether it's a new apartment in the city or a new house in the suburbs. The ceilings are quite high--typically ten feet. Even basement ceilings are quite high, in contrast to old homes where one often must bend over a bit while in the basement. Door frames are high.

Windows if anything are too big, not too small! My city apartment has floor to ceiling windows which are difficult for window treatments. Suburban homes can have huge two-story family rooms.

Noise is more a problem from adjoining units. Outside noise is sealed out quite well thanks to double-pane windows.

Overall new construction is of quite high quality when it comes to what's important. New homes have smoke detectors, fire sprinklers, better electrical systems, more durable cladding on the outside, better insulation, more bathrooms, and air conditioning. As someone who has seen both old and new homes and has considered living in both, I do not get the nostalgia for old homes. Most home buyers around here agree as they are gutting old homes and renovating them, not living in them as is. I considered living in old homes, but only because they are in good locations. Their oldness in and of itself offered no benefits.

Maybe that's DC, then? I dunno. I live in Southern California, and I haven't seen a home built here in the last 30 years that was remotely well constructed. They're all made out of ticky tacky, as the song goes. And it seems to be getting worse year over year, especially in homes built after the Great Recession. The only exceptions seem to be the double-digit-million-dollar luxury homes.

As for the pros and cons of old construction...

Pros: generally more durable, more attention to detail, nicer materials used. Will suffer from age-related maintenance issues, but unlike modern construction, is unlikely to suffer from issues related to fundamental structural or design failure.

Cons: design and layout choices that no longer fit a contemporary lifestyle (small or no closets; tiny bathrooms and kitchens; closed floor plans; etc.). Generally poorer insulation. Depending on the age of the home, it may also have issues with old plumbing and, having not been designed for central heating or A/C, will sometimes be a bear to deal with in that department.

All things considered, having lived in a c. 1920s home and a series of c. 2000s and c. 2010s homes, I'd take the older house 9 times out of 10 and just gut/retrofit as necessary to remedy layout issues (not construction-quality issues). I don't enjoy living in a drywall box with a superficially nice looking kitchen.

And I say all of this as someone who, all things being equal, greatly prefers a hyper-modernist aesthetic. I just have to accept that I don't get a Tony Stark house until I have Tony Stark money. :)

If you're talking about the Bay Area - then there's good reason why buildings are wood framed and light weight. Wood frame construction is generally more earthquake resistant.


However, if you're not in an earthquake-prone area... then I agree I'd prefer to have a more solid construction.

True, but a wood frame doesn't have to imply stick-built, green and wet 2x4 construction.

Even in modern times where big timbers are scarce, you can still get straight, true, kiln-dried douglas fir in large (8x8, 8x12) sizes relatively cheaply.

I think one of the issues with the better woods in particular is sustainability of growth. Basically every house built today in NZ will be using Pinus Radiata, which is a less dense wood that grows very very quickly, and is very sustainable. In the past, e.g. 1960 and earlier, houses used Rimu, and potentially Kauri - both of which are very hard, very dense woods that will test even the best drill bits - but they're not sustainable.

There are two approaches to sustainability: 1. Use quality material that is slow to come by, but build stuff that lasts for decades, or even centuries. 2. Use "sustainably" produced material, but build utter shit that doesn't last and that you expect to throw away in a few years.

For stuff like houses, I prefer the first approach.

The time scale "decades" is reserved for the materials we use today. To use better woods, for example, you need timescale of many centuries.

sustainable implies you can continue doing it indefinitely, but the first approach is more likely to fail that test due to increasing demand.

re 'drywall on sticks' - not only does this construction technique provide for a huge amount of flexibility in interior layout, it's by far the most earthquake friendly construction for single family homes.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to see a home built with such 'toy' materials require nothing more than some stucco repair and drywall patching, with a brick house right next door literally falling apart.

I realize not every region has earthquakes to worry about, but it is a factor in some areas.

Agreed, and wouldn't mind if my city (Los Angeles) bulldozed most, if not all of the buildings built around the 60's. This is also the time when suburbs became fashionable, for a double-whammy of craptastic design. These two factors, among others contribute immensely to the uninviting, ugly, even amateurish feel to much of the city.

> 10ft ceilings

These were no longer necessary once air conditioning was invented. However high ceilings and window awnings are more energy efficient and therefore should probably make a comeback.

>This is clearly not a cost issue

Whenever something is done cheaply and it looks like it's not a cost issue because it's only miniscule part of the total cost of the product, it's usually actually is a cost issue. The buyer of the final product might not mind spending a little extra to have that one thing done a little better, but for the supplier of the sub-sub-contractor whose entire profit comes from doing that one thing, the "miniscule" part becomes 100% of the cost.

Not only that, but this is only one of many things that could be done more expensively. What if you add better fire resistance, better insulation, more weather resistant paint, more carefully assembled parts, etc. it ends up becoming quite a lot more expensive. It's a bit like the difference between a Mercedes and a Toyota. They both seem to be basically the same, but the Mercedes has slightly more expensive parts scattered all through it like a few dollars spent on fluid dampers on the adjustable seat backs compared to no damping.

But the Toyota vs Mercedes-Benz is a poor comparison

> The most reliable engines came from Honda, with a failure rate of just 1 in 344, with Toyota in second (1 in 171) and, maintaining some honour for the German brands, Mercedes in third (1 in 119).


Probably because in recent years MB uses Renault engines.

If you go around old homes in Portland, you will see lathe and plaster walls as smooth as a still lake built close to 100 years ago, not to mention lovingly crafted wood details.

If you go into a modern home, you see sheet drywall with tons of shitty looking texture all over it to hide the deep imperfections with the hanging of the drywall, and nary a wood detail to be found.

It's absurd that we've taken these woefully cheaper home construction standards with the prices of housing.

I'd imagine all the cheap shanty towns and crap houses were bulldozed over a long time ago.

Re: Low "hobbit" ceilings.

...in many cases i have seen in NYC, homeowners are economically motivated to "lower" their ceilings (cheaper to heat/cool living space).

I bought and still live in an early century Georgian, and the maintenance costs over the past two decades has been a very real challenge.

If a pipe leaks, if there is a crack in the wall, if/when the floor eventually gets bowed, etc. It is an entirely different, time-consuming and expensive approach to maintaining everything.

For the majority of homeowners, it is clearly and absolutely a cost issue.

"some time right after WWII, people in US suddenly decided to live in a poorly built and ugly looking dwellings regardless of their income level. "

We stopped living in walkable villages and cities and started living in motorway dependant sprawling suburbs. Our buildings got uglier. Our built environment got worse even as we got richer.

Largely this was a matter of public policy. The Roosevelt administration made new rules to plan new development to promote industry during the Depression and imposed it on banks and local planning boards. Still, there wasn't enough push to get the banks to allow anything to be built. Then after the war, those regulations had been in place for almost fifteen years and nothing had been built in the whole country for 16 years since the Depression began.

So people took the rules as gospel and built using them. The only thing allowed was car dependant sprawl and the car companies -- an enormous political power right after the war -- loved it. So the whole country was redesigned. It still is. And if your community isn't worth loving -- as sprawl isn't -- then it isn't worth building beautiful buildings.

That's why this is now the nation of NIMBYism. People can see that nothing has gotten built here but garbage since 1929 and they don't want more of it. Places like San Francisco are now like jewels and museums since nobody has been allowed to build like that in 86 years and won't be allowed to start tomorrow. The epoch when things could be new and beautiful has passed from living memory.

If you've ever worked in residential construction, there's one constant truth: everything you make will be redesigned away before it fails. Our desire for novelty is strong, and cheap construction lets us reconfigure houses affordably in ways that old, stronger construction didn't. Someone will want a new countertop because it looks pretty long before the old one will break, and the same goes for closet space and windows.

That's no explanation for situation in the article, of course. One would expect that structural elements of large, dramatic investments of that sort would take proper care to last. But drywall-on-sticks is an economic reality that makes sense.

re: shaking, it's not necessarily mass; it's rigidity, or lack thereof. It's more expensive, but you can build a more rigid floor by using deeper joists and spacing them more closely. You also need to make sure the floor is well anchored to the walls, but these days it should be done as a matter of the course to get good seismic performance.

One main development might be the specialization of the construction industry and the advent of professional management after WWII. When homes are not built by home owners but by development companies, a totally different set of incentives might fall in place, and with professional management one might start looking for metrics and optimizing against them.

The main thing is the drywall. Interior walls in homes used to be plaster, troweled onto lathe or wire backing in several coats. Plaster is a LOT heavier than drywall: it's basically like having 3/4-inch cement walls. Plaster walls lend a sense of solidity and quiet to the entire house.

The basic framing of houses is not that much different.

>The basic framing of houses is not that much different.

Lots of the old houses people are pining for here used death-trap "balloon framing".

Of course they also tend to fail for the same reason as gravity slowly pulls them off the lathe.

How often do you think plaster should last?

I've lived in Europe for almost 30 years, and have never seen the plaster fall off the wall/ceiling without some serious other cause, like a leaking roof or serious subsidence.

My mum's house was built in 1908. A water leak in the summer meant part of the ceiling was ruined. The plasterer said it was original lath and plaster, and gave her a discount as he said it was a pleasure to work with.

21% of dwellings in England were built before 1919.


> The way I see it, some time right after WWII, people in US suddenly decided to live in a poorly built and ugly looking dwellings regardless of their income level.

You could extend this to a lot of other things. Pre-war and post-war America look way more than five years apart.

Is the brick actually holding up the building? In many modern buildings, it's just a veneer, about 1cm thick. The steelwork holds it up. The new Box.net HQ in Redwood City looks like a brick building, but it's not; it's steel and concrete with about 1cm of brick on the outside.

There's some nice work being done with brick today.[1] Some of this is gentrification, built to fit in with existing brick buildings, or to imitate them in new construction. All those examples have recessed windows, although not structural stone lintels. Many lintels today are precast stone and decorative; steel is carrying the load.

Robotic bricklaying is here.[2]

In earthquake country, you really don't want tall brick buildings where the brick is structural. San Francisco is very anti-cornice; in even minor earthquakes, overhanging masonry cornices tend to fall off and kill people.

[1] http://www.bdcnetwork.com/7-emerging-design-trends-brick-bui... [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ppk4O7iyzPI

> Is the brick actually holding up the building?

This was my thought as well. The modern building is likely just using the brick as veneer, even if it is full-thickness brick. It's likely concrete walls with brick layered over it. The fact that the brickwork is poorly done likely doesn't matter except aesthetically. If all the brick fell off the building would still be standing.

The newer building is indeed ugly, and the brickwork looks cheap and poorly done. But that doesn't mean the technology has declined. It means the technology has advanced to the point that the brick is just ornamental.

Wouldn't you expect brick for ornamental purposes to look prettier than brick used for functional purposes?

No, you'd expect brick for ornamental purposes to look prettier than what it's covering.

I have heard stories of a whole brick wall falling off the home ... but the home was intact... it was not "glued"/secured properly.

I fully expect that the brick is structural in those examples. My university had brick dorms "the bricks". They had brick exterior walls and cinder block interior walls. The brick walls were brick on the outside and the inside and only one brick thick.

If the interior walls are cinder block, I would expect the brick to be purely aesthetic. Cinder blocks don't need brick next to them for strength if built correctly.

If there are cinderblocks on the inside, then the outside layer isn't structural. Depending on how old the building is, it might serve a purpose for insulation - either an 'air gap' or to sandwich proper insulation material between two layers. But the building will stand without the brick. This is actually the 'normal' way of building anything under, say, 4 stories in most of Western Europe.

I think even some old (100 year old) buildings w/ "full sized" bricks (not 1cm veneer) are still wood-frame construction w/ brick non-structural outerwork.

See http://www.carsondunlop.com/resources/articles/brick-houses-...

Definitely. That's still done today as well. Lots of homes are wood frame with full-thickness brick veneer.

The article mentions that it's not a wood-framed building, I think implying that it's a true layered (multi-wythe) brick construction:

My analysis doesn't even address brick problems associated with the switch from multi-wythe brick construction to brick veneer over wood framing. (Andres Hall is not a wood-framed building.) Although buildings with brick veneer over wood framing are usually better insulated than old multi-wythe brick buildings, they are frequently plagued by an entirely new category of water entry problems due to flashing errors, clogged air spaces, and missing weep holes. But that's a topic for another article.

I was excited to find your robot brick layer link, but it didn't look that great. There was still a chap doing some of the finishing work sitting alongside. I prefer the idea of programming the robots, leaving the site, and then returning to find your house complete! The 3d printing using concrete made more sense. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/video/2014/apr/29/3d-p...

> Robotic bricklaying is here.

Does this mean there are robot Freemasons in our future?

I think you've missed the joke...

This link seems more relevant: http://illuminatiwatcher.com/illuminati-freemason-symbolism-...

The robot is .. meh. I expected something like http://www.honolulutraffic.com/LayingBrickRoad.JPG, but vertical. That slow and hesitant 3 joints arm seems a bad idea.

The article uses the word "façade" 7 times in reference to both the older and newer building. My takeaway is the emphasis on "technology" in the article is on form rather than function.


The article is using definition #1. I don't think the word is meant to imply anything beyond the literal, "the front of a building".

Thanks, I wasn't even aware there was another definition besides "superficial".

Survivorship bias is a really important caveat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias

Many cheap brick buildings from 100 years ago are gone, where the high quality ones are more likely to remain.

Also, steel Lintel are often used over windows in brick buildings. They don't last as long, but are fine for cheap construction that is not expected to last. AKA the kinds of building that are unlikely to be around in 100 years.

My last house was built in ~1936. It was cheap for the time, but the entire estate of houses it sat in was complete - virtually nothing had been removed. The form of the buildings had changed somewhat (extension for bathroom instead of toilet in the garden), but the brick walls were incredible and the internal timberwork (joists, frames, etc.) was all hardwood of a quality that would be very expensive now.

My current house was built in ~1985. The brick quality isn't bad, the walls are much straighter, but the wood is cheaper and the materials thinner and lighter. It might be the case this place will last 100 years, but I wouldn't bet on it. It's a middle market house, for the time, not cheap but not high end.

While survivor bias is important, where I live (London) the main reason houses from 100 years ago aren't around now is simply the war. The stuff from then that's still about - including "cheap" factories and other stuff - is now wildly fashionable and still well-built. Stuff built in the 50s was laughably awful and a lot is gone, stuff from 60s and 70s is going the same way. There are definitely other things going on.

I think one thing is buildings are now are built closer to their required engineering tolerances. In the past many building were massively over engineered, while modern buildings seem to be built for their exact expected lifespan.

The one thing I really hate about most modern buildings here in Australia is the ceiling height has been reduced. A lot of modern buildings have ceiling heights around 7’ while old buildings will have ceilings of 10’ to 12’.

Shorter ceilings are better for climate control, though. No need to heat up a bunch of air that just floats around over your head.

Not a huge concern in most parts of Australia... Having high ceilings (and fans) is actually an advantage.

It's the opposite in countries with a hot climate - high ceilings make ventilation (without an AC) better.

This is only true if your climate makes it more expensive to heat the building than to cool it.

Ceiling heights of 7 feet? Are you sure? Many tall people would only just fit upright...

7' is accurate for many new Housing Estate houses eg AV Jennings. The buildings all look similar except for roof color. It's very disorientating.

My house is 1860s with a 12' ceiling. Those other places feel like claustrophobic rabbit holes in comparison.

Low ceilings minimize material costs and maximize profits.

This is exactly right - it is done to reduce the building cost.

Of course having a ceiling this low is terrible for natural cooling so you then have to run air conditioning all the time costing far more in the long run. I live in a 1920s building with 11’ ceilings and I don’t have or need air conditioning because the place stays cool enough even through the height of summer.

most places in the UK don't run AC even during the summer.

> Low ceilings minimize material costs and maximize profits.

They also minimise heat loss, which is strictly regulated in the UK. Hence that other annoying feature of many modern build - tiny windows.

Why is heat loss regulated? Shouldn't I be able to heat my home as much or as little as I want?

The regulation is about energy efficiency of new-build construction, not how much you have your heating on. Partly it's a green thing, partly it's pragmatic, in that the UK has failed to invest in serious power generation for decades and faces the real possibility of brownouts in the not too distant future.

Plants are approaching EOL and they haven't been building new capacity to replace them. They've thrown a bunch of money at wind, but I think that's been more of a handout to (traditionally Conservative-voting) landowners than a viable strategy.

UK STILL don't fixed those issues?

UK since middle ages was already infamous for having cities (specially london, but not just london) that have energetic problems and rely a lot on coal (and now other fossil fuels), leading to the infamous killer fogs, and to the victorian fashion (in victorian era, people tried to use stuff that would not have issues in a highly polluted air, for example extremely thick and dark curtains, so that people don't notice you aren't washing them a lot...)

Across Europe there are strict standards for building efficiency. This is not just about insufficient infrastructure, it's to keep energy waste in check. People want as cheap a house as possible (which I understand, it's hugely expensive and most people have to make serious sacrifices) and when having to choose between not terribly energy-inefficient and full-height bedrooms, they'll often choose the latter. Which is unsustainable in the aggregate. Hence, tight regulations on energy efficiency.

> Which is unsustainable in the aggregate.

Isn't that just implying that most energy is artificially cheap, relative to its externalities?

Why can I own two new homes with 8' ceilings and heat them both(even if I don't live at one for 90% of the time), but I can't own one new home with 12' ceilings?

"Isn't that just implying that most energy is artificially cheap, relative to its externalities?"

Yes it is. But if you're going to charge 'real' price (even assuming you can), people with the least disposable income will have to pay disproportionally more for their energy, which is a a basic need in 2015. Plus it would cause ripple effects that are impossible to predict. So the prudent way of mitigating this is with targeted policies, like building efficiency. It's a political decision. Of course one might say 'we should charge everything at the full rate and let the market sort it out', which is a fine position (one I personally lean towards, for as much as that matters) but it's irrelevant to the fact that there are many groups that don't agree. So what we have now is a system with many groups pushing in various directions, and 'patches' for situations where that causes unwanted effects that all parties can agree on (well, a majority can agree on) should be mitigated somehow.

"Why can I own two new homes with 8' ceilings and heat them both(even if I don't live at one for 90% of the time), but I can't own one new home with 12' ceilings?"

So to come back to the issue at hand, I can also buy a 10MW heater, put it outside in my garden and have it 'waste' energy 24/7. We don't have laws against that (afaik). But our policies rely partly on the assumption of economically rational actors, which to a degree and in the aggregate is the empirically verified reality.

In other words, for ever policy I'm sure one can think of 100 ways to stay within the law yet violate the spirit of the policy. That's just the nature of governance, and it works fine in the vast majority of cases. Law is not a closed rule-based system like computers are, and that's fine.

(actually that last part is up for debate; even Montesquieu (who was the guy to come up with the original theory of 'balance of three powers') was of the opinion that perfect law should be just that, and that judges should do nothing but apply rigid rules to facts. But that's getting way more off topic than is reasonable...)

It's a the result of new of building code, which has minimum energy efficiency requirements. Residential energy efficiency is projected via heat loss calculations among other things.

Not when your country imports oil and you have a negative impact on its trade deficit (and/or environment).

Shouldn't I be regulated as to when I can open my windows then too? (as in, not in winter)

Well, "should" or "shouldn't" can get too complex to analyze.

There's no god given set of rights -- what we get to do is what the era/society/legal system we live in allows us.

And what's moral/good to do even outside or against what's allowed, is a matter of philosophy.

People expected to be able to smoke even on an airplane in the 70s. Nowadays not so much. Asking someone not to smoke "within 30 ft of this building's entrance" (a common sign), would seem as ridiculous to them as the regulation of heating to you.

The difference being that I don't pay a tax to the people who are inconvenienced when I smoke. Suppose everyone in an area set a price that they would be willing to smell cigarette smoke during their meal. If I pay them all that price, why shouldn't I be allowed to smoke? And some people would set it at +infinity, which is fine too, which would mean I don't get to smoke.

With heating, the government is placing a +infinity price on heat retention for buildings(with ceilings > 8'), but isn't actually enforcing that price in any other manner. Why not just charge progressively increasing amounts for electricity/gas expenditure? Right now, I can have a 100% legal, heat-efficient home, and heat it day and night by leaving the windows open. I wouldn't do that because I don't like to waste money, but that is just like I would not live in a house that was extremely energy inefficient.

Basically, if I want to pay for tall ceilings in my house, shouldn't I be able to, assuming I pay the appropriate amount?

>With heating, the government is placing a +infinity price on heat retention for buildings(with ceilings > 8'), but isn't actually enforcing that price in any other manner. Why not just charge progressively increasing amounts for electricity/gas expenditure?

Because they just want to impose a rule for what they believe is better for the environment.

They don't want to make it into a market product.

>Basically, if I want to pay for tall ceilings in my house, shouldn't I be able to, assuming I pay the appropriate amount?

That just makes it into something the rich can do while the poor can't. While indeed it also servers to lower the number of people doing't it -- it's not what any society that holds to high esteem any values besides net worth would want to do.

And I'm not just talking about the "tall ceilings" thing here, which might or might not be reasonable, but the more general question "shouldn't I pollute/waste as much energy as I want if I pay enough for it?".

Somethings we don't allow people to do at any price. Like kill people. Even if the victim also agrees. I, for one, don't believe payment trumps any morals in principle, and I wouldn't want that to be the case.

Whether it happens in practice (e.g. bribery etc), that's OK. But I wouldn't design a system where that's accepted and celebrated too.

Mate, this is bloody Oz. It hit nearly 46C (114F) last year in my city. Last thing I'm trying to do is minimize heat loss.

UK tenements had few or no windows due to the perverse tax formula.

Yep it totally claustrophobic if you are over 5’ in height. I really, really hate low ceilings.

Huh, I grew up in a house with ceilings no higher than maybe 7'2" (though that was not usual for buildings) and am 5'11" and wouldn't dream of calling it "claustrophobic". My father is even a couple inches taller. I guess it depends a lot on what you're used to.

Meanwhile my current residence has ceilings so high that I haven't bothered to install some LED bulbs that I have lying around since I don't have an easy safe way to reach the light fixtures.

I am sure different people feel differently, but for me low ceilings are a non-option. In a climate like mine high ceilings avoid the need for air conditioning.

You can get special poles for changing high bulbs. I have seen them before, but I can't remember what they are called.

Ah you must mean the good old "ceiling puncher". :)

Actually I think the pole is just the regular extension pole you'd use with a paint roller. You get a light bulb changing attachment instead.

That opens the question of expected lifetime of a house though. The interior might need to be ripped out and plumbing or sewage etc retrofitted, but in plenty of cases there is simply no reason why the foundation, framing, or other things can't be retained. Which, given the value of high quality timber, seems like a goal worth striving for, rather than disposable houses.

From a purely economic perspective a building that lasts more than 50 years is probably not worth doing. In theory you could invest the initial savings and replace the whole building in 50 years from the income.

The downside of pushing the engineering to the limit is the builders often cut corners to make their own savings so that the building does not even make 50 years. Plenty of new buildings here in Australia are having major structural issues after only 5 to 10 years because of this.

Agreed. I was a victim of this in my former home in Adelaide.

It was a newly built townhouse complex so we were a body corporate. Within 4 years of building completion, we were suffering from rising damp and completely loose paving in the shared driveways. The paving was too high relative to the damp proof course and the base wasn't prepared properly.

It took a couple of years of legal stuff to claim on the building warranty.

Having been through this, I now are more acutely aware of how dodgy new building are around Australia. New apartments especially.

There is no way I would ever buy a new apartment. One of my friends is a builder and the number of horror stories he tells me about current building practices is near endless.

It is absolutely criminal how much we let builders get away with, and since building inspectors are no longer independent (the builder pays for them) everything is stacked against home-buyers these days

It's unlikely that the design and layout of a house will remain up-to-date over 50+ years. People's expectations change, see for example the role of a kitchen in a house. 50 years ago, the kitchen was were the wife cooked. Now kitchens are open, connected to the other living spaces, and very much the central point in the house. Re-doing the plumbing is one thing, dealing with that sort of changes is another.

Are you 100% sure its 7'? There are a number of people [if small percentage wise] that are 7'.

Seriously. And it's not just the seven-footers who'd have issues. I'm 6'3, and I'd feel claustrophobic in a home with 7' ceilings. I'm above average in height, but, like, not wildly so. I certainly don't think I'm an outlier or anything.

Assuming you are a male in the USA you are in the 95th percentile [0] by height. And if you are 7 feet tall then you don't need to worry about low ceilings in council housing because you are probably an NBA [1] player.

[0] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr010.pdf

[1] http://www.truthaboutit.net/2012/05/true-or-false-half-of-al...

It would make for an interesting ADA claim...

High ceilings help when you don't have air conditioning. They are nice aesthetically but unnecessary and even detrimental (more air volume to cool) when you have it.

The same argument can be made against windows.

High ceilings not only avoid the need for air conditioning (my home has 11' ceilings and no air conditioning), they make you feel better in the space. When I am in a building with low ceilings I feel totally claustrophobic and tense - this is not something I want to feel in my own home.

Modern windows can be made very energy efficient. In fact, it's possible to design an almost all-glass energy-neutral house in much of Western Europe.

Feels like nitpicket but: volume of air is in itself not a problem. There's not a whole lot of energy in air. The issue with heating/cooling is the surface area.

With active heating/cooling, what really helps is better insulation. In Scandinavia and Germany people are insulating walls in new houses with 40 cm rockwool, or the equivalents thereof.

My experience in the US is that 8' ceilings are pretty much standard. I've helped build a few stick-built additions and houses, and when you are buying stud timber in bulk, it comes precut either to 96" or 92 5/8" - which, with standard 2xX top and bottom plates, works out to be 8'.

There's a saying that goes something like: "Any idiot can build a bridge. It takes an engineer to build a bridge that is just strong enough to stand given the weight it's meant to bear".

A lot of older structural "engineering" was figuring out how much material was required, then multiplying it by 80 just in case.

It's also interesting to see 2x4s that are actually 2 inches by 4 inches

I laughed at this post because my current home is all brick house built in 1930s, with a brick extension built in 1980s.

An inspector said, "those are very good bricks from the 30s. They don't make bricks that strong anymore"

Yes they do, if you pay for it. I know several brick factories that will make you those 'high-quality' ones. But they don't stock them (instead they make them custom if you want them) because the demand is so low due to the 100% price difference with other bricks that, realistically, serve they purpose just as well.

Not when it comes to this particular issue: build quality between 1800s and today has declined.

If anything, a whole bunch of perfectly decent old buildings have been torn down. Because they were no longer of any use (prolonged vacancy is the worst for any building), not because they were falling apart.

Somewhat of a tangent. Good architecture has three properties: it's useful, it's robust, and it's beautiful. That's a three-legged stool from antiquity, and I firmly believe architects and builders sat on it for centuries. Modernism was an ideological project that discarded two of these legs: only utility was important. the pursuit of beauty was either for old-regime bourgeois or for unenlightened proles, and robustness was not all that necessary for the beancounters anyway, eternity is not a concept for the godless machine age.

Is is also fairly recent that the architect needed to take on all aspects of architecture. For example, architecture training was often taught in the fine arts faculties. The structural issues then were then taken on by the master-builder. It worked, the latter had a wealth of experiential knowledge, an architect didn't need to tell him how to frame a window, or ensure water didn't drip along the wall. The architect becoming first a licensed professional in need to defend his title, then some sort of artist willing a new pristine creation in the world, claimed more and more roles. Now every detail needs to be in the plan almost, less room for correction by skilled craftsmen (who also are thinning out..).

> the godless machine age

Which began in the 1700s or earlier, with the Dark Satanic Mills.

1800s. Blake wrote that in 1804.

More significantly, it took a fair bit of time for modern methods to enter into construction. Structural steel and skyscrapers along with many other "modern" inventions date to the 1880s. Modern "stick" housing began largely in the 1940s.

You can find catalogs of old housing, literally, in Sears Roebuck catalogs, detailing design and construction.

No way. Talk to anyone involved in construction.

Every component in a building today save plumbling, windows and electric is inferior to its complement in 1915. The bricks are of lower quality (to the point there is a thriving market for used bricks), the wood is garbage, and quality of labor has shifted from skilled craftsmanship to glorified assembly work.

My home was built in 1927 as a cheap starter home (upstairs was delivered unfinished for buildout when the owners had kids). It's build quality today would only be seen in a custom home with a very wealthy/particular owner and cost a minimum of $750k. (Current value of my home is around $250k)

> Talk to anyone involved in construction.

I am going to take a guess and say that we are not reading a commented written by someone involved in construction. HVAC anything? I'd love to see you sell a house for 750k with asbestos wrapped around all the vents. Vermiculite versus blown in closed cell poly? Poly versus waxed floors? LVLs? Exterior fasteners? Lead paint? Can you imagine how much longer this list would be if I was not content to stick to residential construction?

I could go on and on. TLDR Housing materials have significantly improved since Calvin Coolidge's time. Oh yeah, I forgot Contruction Adhesives...

This. Mine was built in 1964.

The entire floor both upstairs and down is tongue and groove 2x6 planking... vs today's 3/4" OSB.

For being over 50 years old, the "skeleton" is in outstanding condition. There are some very minor foundation issues that I've been slowly fixing with a little elbow grease, and that's about it.

If the drywall and electrical were redone, this thing would be in better condition/quality than a large percentage of BRAND NEW homes on the market today.

I don't really disagree. But copper and mortar plumbing from 1915 might not be shabby at all.

Yes, but when you have entire rows and city-blocks of colonial-era buildings standing, and entire cities of century homes where many new office buildings have gone up and been torn down in the meantime, it's hard to just point to survivorship bias. These aren't a few isolated cases, but large contiguous seas of old buildings.

I would imagine that well-built buildings are not evenly distributed; well-off individuals and businesses, who could presumably therefore afford to build nice buildings, would likely congregate near each other.

In Portland, Oregon, there are whole neighborhoods of 80-90% buildings from the 1880s through the 1930s. There still may be some survivorship bias on a whole-neighborhood level since those were mostly the middle-class areas with higher building quality. But if you compare those buildings to those built recently for the middle-class market, the craftsmanship is obviously different. And urban buildings for wealthy people have recently sidestepped craftsmanship entirely with minimal geometric styles of architecture. There's not a lot of room for ornamentation when the external walls are entirely glass.

The craftsmanship is obviously different, but is it better? I hear the argument that modern houses are all going to be just awful in a few decades. Yet I heard the same argument in the 70's and 80's, and those houses seem to be aging just fine (aesthetic choices aside). A stick built house built in 1970 is 45 years old at this point!

Today's track houses have MUCH improved insulation, much stronger moisture barriers, and are much more efficient than even the nicest houses built 100 years ago.

I just don't believe that construction has regressed the way we all seem to think it has. Of course I type this from a 103 year old house which is awesome, but drafty :)

> A stick built house built in 1970 is 45 years old at this point!

When I was living in London a couple of years ago my house there was a former council house built in the 70s - so it was built to be as cheap as possible. Other than being tiny and having thin drywall everything else was fine.

The problem with the "survivor bias" argument is that it allows for a lazy denial of actual trends in things: sometimes stuff does get worse.

The same applies to "every generation thinks the next generation is horrible". That may or may not be true, but sometimes there are horrible generations.

> but sometimes there are horrible generations.

What do you mean?

There was generation of Germans for example who thought a good idea to elect Hitler, and then cheer for him even as he dismantled the state.

Or there was the boring generation of the 10's, compare with the more lively roaring 20s.

Or consider the 60s vs the more conservative 50s.

Hitler was never elected. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_presidential_election,_... He ran for office twice and lost by more than 15% both times.

Even then Germany was a parliamentary system where the Chancellery goes to the biggest party or coalition in parliament. And the NSDAP was the biggest in the elections in 1932-11 and 1933-3. There were enough idiots who voted for Hitler and his party in those early years.


He got voted cancelour by a majority. That is as democratic as it gets. And yes, this should attack anyones assumption that the people always vote for the best. Thats why there are non-voted pillars of power in a good democracy, that can not correct a bad course, but can at least keep it in check.

>And yes, this should attack anyones assumption that the people always vote for the best.

In democracy people are not meant to "vote for the best".

They are meant to vote for what they want, as they judge it for themselves.

I'm not sure what he meant either.

But it might be this: https://www.reddit.com/r/ledootgeneration/

It's unlikely survivor bias - Montreal is full of really shitty build "plexes" for example. They are not falling apart - there is a 'brick works' for them - remove whole brick facade and redo it again. Those "plexes" are rarely torn down in fact. At the same time bank buildings on the same street are very sturdy and never seen 'brick works' since the birth. I tend to think 'plexes' used to be cheap [and crap] and banks, factories [but not schools!] are expensive and good. Construction errors on those 'plexes' are abundant and repeated over and over in today's plexes, yet those are OK with building codes.

not only that, but back in the day brick was the fancy expensive option, today it isn't. those with big budgets and ambitious design goals choose other materials (steel, glass, etc.)

I thought brick was more expensive today due to labor costs and that steel and glass were comparatively cheap. Is this false?

Generally true. The relative cost of wood vs brick also varies from country to country depending on local availability.

wood is definitely cheaper than brick but i have a hard time believing that a brick building will be more expensive than one made of steel and glass. the architecture, engineering, transport, etc. is where most of the cost comes from, not the building materials.

Depends a lot. If you can just install prefabricated elements large elements, steel is not that expensive.

On the other hand every brick has to be laid by hand. Good bricklayers are scarce because brick has not been in fashion. And therefore they are expensive. Bad bricklayers are slow.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10522334 claims that brick is expensive enough for people to steal buildings!

I suspect that survivorship bias is not much of an issue here since the old building still looks a lot better than that new building.

Actually that confirms the point; the old building was clearly state of the art for the time, and the new building is a cheap rush like student dorms sometimes are.

No, there are many buildings in London surviving that were built simply to get the money when they were demolished to build railways but it never happened, and they are still standing. 19th century buildings were mass produced, not always very well.

Examples? Presumably you're not claiming the Citizens Bank building from TFA is such a building, and mass-produced 19th century buildings might look quite different from it.

I dunno, there's a lot of cheap 1880s "workers cottages" around here which have nonetheless been built with a lot more style and care than the average new building.

Survivorship bias means that the only objects available for comparison are ones that bias the comparison. For example, the brick buildings from 2,000 years ago were built way better, because look at this brick building still standing that was built 2,000 years ago, look how great it is! Of course, the bad brick buildings built 2,000 years ago can't be found because they crumbled a long time ago.

Reminds me on a recent conversation at a maker space:

    How do you control it, a transistor and a oscillator?

    Nah, just an Arduino.
So with micro controllers we loose a lot of applied knowledge of analog circuits and I suspect something similar is going on in architecture. The hours a architect spends on learning about modern materials is not spend thinking about brick works, and consequently a modern architect is a lot worse at building brick buildings than a architect one hundred years ago.

> "Part of the blame, I feel, rests at the feet of the Modernist movement — a movement that idealized the cube and disdained roof overhangs. Modernist architects were ignorant of the entire concept of moisture management. The fact that thousands of Modernist buildings suffered water entry problems did little to deter architects from falling in love with Modernism and Brutalism. This tragic love affair contributed to the withering of age-old skills."

I believe this is a fair assignment of blame. It's analogous to the complaints people have about some modern web design - total focus on appearance at the expense of usability or technical quality.

The architects produce buildings that look good on paper, because that's what wins the contract. The next client isn't going to go to their previous building and do a customer satisfaction survey on the users. Nobody ever does.

Edit: Incan stone construction is one of the great examples of ancient 'over'building: precisely fitted hand-carved stone, good for five centuries. And Rome has plenty of 2000 year old brick buildings, especially the Pantheon dome.

This was a good article but I think the authors assignment of blame is misplaced.

In my opinion the reason contemporary brick construction is not up to par with 100 year old brick construction is the same reason contemporary washing machines are not up to the standard of washing machines 100 years ago: The emphasis in making things now is on speed and cheapness, the emphasis 100 years ago was on quality.

The college dorm building was certainly thrown up in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the price with a fraction of the labourers, than the bank building.

I will gladly trade a 100 year old washing machine (rusty and hand-powered, I assume) for a Miele.

I'm sure you have an argument here, but I don't see how washing machines further it.

You assume too much. Also this article is addressing the construction quality and longevity of brick facades. I was referencing the construction quality and longevity of washing machines, pre-war vs modern.


Back then, you could only buy expensive high quality ones. Only a few people could afford it. Nowadays, you can buy cheap crappy ones, as well as expensive high quality ones. What's the argument here? If someone will let me spend the equivalent amount of what these old houses cost back then on a new brick building, I will have them build just as good as the old ones. Actually, I'll have them build better, because the woodworking of the windows will be much better, the moisture barriers will be better, the insulation will be better, the quality of the mortar will be better, the concrete slab will be better (actually, 'it will have a concrete slab'), the roof tiles will be of better quality, the heating system will not suck, I can go on and on...

I'm not so sure... Some of the superior brick dorms on that campus built in the 20s and 30s averaged around a year of construction, and cost about $200,000, which adjusted for inflation, is ~ $2.5 million.

The most recent addition to the East Wheelock cluster (couldn't find the cost of the building in question) cost $8 million over two years. The newer McLaughlin cluster, with six dorms, took three years to build and cost over $40 million in 2006.

> the emphasis 100 years ago was on quality

I would argue that the emphasis was on "repairability".

Hm, I'd say both but quality first. The engineers aim was to make something that would last forever, the goal was that nothing would go wrong with it, but inevitably over the years something would and in that case it'd better be convenient to repair as the its so damn expensive you cant just buy another.

The author admits to the limited comparison. I have a few other reasons:

1. We actually care if our buildings are insulated now and withstand earthquakes.

2. People are so wealthy here they don't have to get it right, they can always pay to do it over again. They don't care to put in the research to make sure it is done right. [0]

3. Corollary to #2, we don't need our buildings to last 100 years because we expect the area to be overtaken by increased density by then?

[0] CSB: Person tells about friend that bought house in Las Vegas just prior to 2008, has enormous cooling bill because house doesn't have overhang to protect southern exposure from the sun and HOA won't allow her to alter it. Asks why the government doesn't protect her. I ask why she didn't do a little more due diligence before spending $300k. He hadn't thought of it that way and considers it.

4. The 19th century buildings which were shoddily built (the majority) have been torn down. It's the same bias that makes people claim old appliances were built better than modern ones.

The article's author is not wrong. The average 1980's brickwork building is built less well than the average 100 year old building. However, 100 years ago buildings probably were built worse on average than today. Both of those statements can be true at the same time.

People used to be able to repair old appliances. Now, they basically last two years(durable good), and we throw it out. I'll take repairability, over modern, in appliances, and even automobiles. I used to be able to fix my appliances; I just throw them away now. I wonder what the net cost is to the enviornment? I currently have a dryer that never stops beeping. A washer that never really cleaned clothes, but only uses a small amount of water? A three year old dishwasher that needs a expensive computer board, and a pump. Parts that are more expensive than a new machine.

I was renting a place that had a washer and dryer set from the early 60s. It worked wonderfully, until one day the washer wouldn't cycle properly. I tore it apart and there was a stack of plastic gears that ran the state machine for the various cycles, one them was worn.

I didn't have the means in 2000 to disassemble the gear pack and a replacement couldn't be found and god I tried. The land lords endedup scrapping both machines and replacing it with shoddy new stuff that didn't work as well. A total shame.

The future is owning a state-of-the-art 3D printer to produce the small plastic part for your sixty-year-old washing machine.

Or having Google Tango or a sufficiently smart computational camera that can take a picture of the defective part have it repaired by some mechanism either automatic or the fiver of mechanical fixups, have it printed and shipped (drone, carrier pigeon, USPS, etc).

One of my hopes is that public good corp will rise of the consumerist ashes and start to produce items that can not only be repaired but that can be collectively refined just like a codebase. Imagine if there was an open source, end user repairable washing machine, that when a flaw is discovered it is fixed and tracked in a public ledger?

How would any of the issues with the Dartmouth brick building in the article have been caused by #1?

I'm pretty sure they don't care about insulation that much at Dartmouth. There's a huge steam plant on campus, and all the brick dorms are equipped with old-fashioned steam radiators that have two settings - over-bearingly hot, and "boil my pot of ramen noodles." It's common to see the dorm windows wide open when it is -20 F in February, with students trying to regulate the temperature to a livable level.

The masons and architects have a lot more to care about these days. Even so, they should have gotten the flashing and water flow right (even cheap 80s houses usually have slanted window sill).

Oh, and the insulation reduces drying of the brick to the interior, which can cause it decay within a decade if not done right: http://www.bluegreengroup.ca/bluegreen-launches-a-study-on-a... (though that's not the case here).

Those reasons help explain why brick is a less desirable building material now than it was a century ago. This decline in desirability means that brick won't be selected for the most ambitious, highest-budget projects today, where it was the preferred choice back then.

A bit more technical: http://buildingscience.com/documents/insights/bsi080-tailor-...

Essentially, Holladay is complaining about the lack of water detailing, which is super important to the durability of brick. It doesn't need to be as fancy as his first example, as the link above shows, but you need someone to care about it.

Essentially, the issue building science specialists have with modernist architecture is that it often favors geometric simplicity over proper protection of the materials. Brick can withstand water, to an extent, but without drip edges and other details, it's quickly going to get damaged and ugly.

Note that building science nerds also tend to hate bumpouts and complicated rooflines because the air tightness and insulation details are hard to get right (and usually they just aren't done properly).

The small house I live in is 100 years old, and built of brick. It is a tremendously (over-)engineered building: two layers of brick even for interior walls, exterior walls are around 1 ft thick, and four massive chimney-breasts (although two were sadly removed by previous owners).

My theory is that they just had enormous amounts of cheap labour 100 years ago, and you'd never be able to build such a building today because it would be far too expensive.

In my experience the timber in buildings that old is of the sort that would be hard to find at any price these days, and ruinously expensive if you could. Single thick, long, flawless pieces used in places where several thinner, knot-filled pieces would be used today.

Exceptional (by modern standards) material, used in quantities that would be considered excessive even in nice construction these days.

This is of course why reclaimed building materials are a thing (in the UK anyway). I could go to a place not 10 miles from here and buy a cast iron fireplace that was previously in a home very similar to mine. The irony being that a previous owner of my home probably chucked my fireplace in a skip in about 1980.

Alright, too many mentions of survival bias and too much skepticism. There're large parts of some cities that are almost exclusively constructed from brick. It might be bias or it might not be.

It's clear that nowadays buildings are made cheaply. For example the construction of the regular American suburban "stick" house is just the cheapest and the quickest way put up walls and a roof. What you get is something that's badly insulated (both from weather and sound) and just isn't very strong, and the technique is getting traction in other parts of the world too, replacing concrete, beams and brick.

Yeah I don't think it's bias.

That would imply that there's no issues with the newer design when the article clearly showed where the wrong choices have affected the durability of the building.

It's an interesting idea worth exploring...

...but comparing a bank (a building that in 1891 had to LOOK expensive) and student flats (a building that has to BE cheap) results in the rather underwhelming discovery that because they had wildly different budgets with completely different aesthetic aims, they ended up with different built qualities. Shocking, isn't it?

If they want to make an apples-for-apples comparison, the author should come to the UK and compare our 1890 semi-detached with any post-70s new-build. There are certainly ecological issues with the older building (that are expensive to retrofit past) but the quality of building and workmanship is drastically better in the older houses.

And [at least in the UK] this isn't a case of crappy houses made of sticks falling down. With the rarest of exceptions, there is no "survivorship bias".

Student housing at a very expensive private institution. Not some council houses. So pretty fair comparison I think.

And that aesthetics should override competent construction technique is a bad idea, is also a fair criticism.

It's sweet that you think students get what their parents pay for. No. The briefest of glances lets you know exactly what Dartmouth instructed their architect to aim for: capacity.

The real reason it looks so poor is —as I did say before— their respective aesthetic aims. Dartmouth wanted something that looked New Englandy that holds dozens of students, while the bank wanted something that makes them look like they have all the money.

> "With the rarest of exceptions, there is no "survivorship bias"."

A lot of UK housing built circa 1900 - 1930 was not well built at all; Building regulations as such hardly existed and there was a lot of trial and error. Buildings did indeed fall down.

Apologies, only just seen this.

I didn't mean to imply that no 1900 houses have fallen down, just to say that the incredibly vast majority of them are still around today.

Look at any city and you will see rows upon rows of ~1900s terraces. Still mostly upright. These typically only fall down when you let the roof go.

This is in contrast to North America that at the same time was building their houses out of timber. Not only does the material need better maintenance, but the difference between tearing it down and building a new one and refitting is much less than with a double-layer brick build. People want to tear them down and build something better.

If you are curious about this topic you should bring it up with some architects from different countries. From my understanding there are indeed regressions in building quality in some countries but it's not entirely clear what causes it other than decisions that have been made at the time.

In particular the brick did not decrease in quality but the way they were built did. For instance for a while people paid less attention to protecting buildings from water damage to achieve more interesting designs.

A particular crazy architectural style that suffers a lot from this is British brutalist architecture.

It's international thing. One of the original breeds of modernist architecture was even named "international style". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Style_%28archite...

I have a theory why it's like this. In 1800's architects we're often painters first. Their day job was to paint portraits and signs and whatever was ordered. There was quite lot of painters around, only few of them made "art" and only the best got to draw buildings. The architect would then work the design together with mason. Civil engineers of the time we're busy building railroads.

Then at the end of the century, photography happened. In hindsight it's called "the crisis of art!". Suddenly architects could no longer apprentice by painting stuff for customers. You needed a school for architecture. The teachers would of course be old architects, who hang out with painters. So they sucked that "we can't sell portraits anymore, let's go crazy!" attitude.

In the 1940's you still had some old school guys. During this time some factory owners still thought that paying an architect was investment. You got a factory that would sell your product, keep your employers happy and make you proud. Here is factory building from that period. http://torshammer.eu/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Kabelfabrike...

Now architecture has not been based on anything for century. Or maybe seeping fashion trends of modern art. Most big money people use architect just to "pretty up" the facade of a building as afterthought. If even that. Nobody trusts architect to make anything coherent or beautiful.

At the same time architects need to jump on any opportunity to get some international fame. Because that's the only way you can ever succeed with such career. This breeds eccentricity. Which makes the whole thing worse.

To justify not using and architect, you might word that as "saving money". To be consistent with that, you cut costs in labor and materials. To the point of making actually bad buildings.

Brutalism gets everywhere in modern british arcitecture. The idea that any archtiect should be designing a flat foor bulding in, say, Scotland is totally bonkers.


It's a beautiful ruin, but it seems never to have been a properly functioning building. Artistic success, total waste of resources for church that built it.

Oh yes that's quite the nasty bit of concrete.

I would love to know the mindset and thought process of Brutalist architects and admirers who see that and see beauty whilst the majority of the rest of the world sees a broken down leaking eye sore.

We are so far apart it is like trying to understand and alien.

I have seen a scant handful of Brutalist building that I consider fine works of craft but the gob smacking majority are pitiful piles of concrete and exposed trusses.

I don't think I've ever seen a Brutalist building that I consider good. Worse still, stupid architects get them heritage listed so we can't even replace them with actually useful buildings (i.e. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameron_Offices,_Belconnen)

Survivorship bias and structural integrity aside, I suspect it's all about the cashflow.

The bank was built in 1891. The FDIC wasn't around until 1933. The appearance of wealth and institutional stability was a very important marketing tool to late 19th-century bankers wanting patrons to trust them with their money.

The dorm houses kids fresh out of high school who can't / don't want to live off campus. I'd guess the building is attractive enough to most people to avoid negative attention, and -- as the article indicates -- it obviously isn't swaying money away from Dartmouth, so why bother?

More broadly on this subject, I recommend that every software engineer read the book How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. It's a book about the lifecycle of buildings, design compromises, and how buildings are altered and repurposed over their life. It's a fascinating way to think about software as well.

Could it be survivor bias? What if the cheap shitty hundred-year-old buildings are torn down or covered in plaster or siding, thus leaving only the good specimens?

This is a clear example of survivorship bias.

Buildings from 100 years ago that still stand today necessarily must have been those that were most carefully constructed or those that have been thoughtfully preserved. This creates a biased comparison between the highest quality buildings of the past and an average (or perhaps worse than average) building from modern times.

This article could conclude that not all brick buildings today are superior in construction to the highest quality buildings built 100 years ago, but making a more general statement would be a fallacious extrapolation.

And to bring that idea home: contemporary flimsy construction is also a function of local building codes. In 2004 I was in a Florida house built in 1988 which structurally resembled a concrete bunker outfitted with heavy duty crank windows. This was required construction at the time. A hurricane showed up mid August with 140 mph (225 kph) winds and two things in particular were impressive: how well the structure survived the hurricane essentially unscathed (other than damage to it's pool cage screening) and witnessing how well palm trees folded their foliage to weather the onslaught. Apparently after 1988 they had lightened up on the building codes and cheap 2X4 frame construction was allowed for two story dense pack condos in the surrounding area. These did not fare so well. In one case a large pine tree was snapped at the base and hurled through the side of a frame condo complex like a battering ram, demolishing the whole structure. The complex had been evacuated before the hurricane struck so apparently there were no casualties. The moral of this story is that if you mandate good construction then that's what you get. Leave loopholes for cheap construction and that's what you'll get (and it won't suffer the rigors of time very well).

Where are brick buildings being torn down left and right? I challenge the survivorship bias argument as where I live in the US east coast multiple cities push for historical status on buildings past a certain age in order to retain character.

My 1950 brick building is 1/3 constructed from re-used brick. Many houses built in the 1960s in my area are also built of reused brick. There must have been some degree of brick teardown going on.

Even now we have trouble with people stealing brick buildings. Unused houses are sometimes set ablaze by brick thieves, then later they come in the night and cart off the bricks.

stealing brick buildings

This sounds totally bananas, where is this? Are the bricks made of gold or something?

This is a problem in parts of St. Louis, MO. The brick is of high enough quality that people will steal them for resale from abandoned buildings. Naturally, this leads to the building collapsing which causes even more issues for surrounding area.

$0.50 to $1.00 is typical for St. Louis used bricks.

There are some other great explanations in this thread (survivor bias seems very plausible), but I'll throw out another based on my experience with other construction trades: economics.

If you look at old buildings, you tend to notice that they also have a lot of intricate plaster-work that you never see anymore. Why? Because it used to be much cheaper to hire skilled labor than it is today. You can see a similar trend every year in the Christmas Price Index, which tracks the cost of the items in the 12 Days of Christmas song. The prices of goods tend to stay stable, while the price of labor tends to increase significantly.

For our brick buildings, I tried to find the best numbers I could, and here's what I came up with: In 1894, bricks cost about $5.70/thousand [1], which is $165.51 in today's dollars Today, you can get bricks wholesale for $220/thousand - and that's what I found online, I imagine an actual wholesaler is less. [2] That's an increase of about 37%

For the bricklayer, the average wage in 1891 was $4/day, which is about $110 in today's dollars [3]

Today, the median bricklayer pay is $24/hour [4], which is $192 per 8 hour day.

That's an increase of 75% in the real wages of the bricklayer, and it means that the rate labor costs have increased is double the rate of material costs.

In 1891, it may have made financial sense to pay for a bricklayer to make intricate, high quality buildings. In the past few decades, it's likely that's no longer the case.

[1] https://books.google.com/books?id=Oo4oAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA953&lpg=...

[2]http://brickbroker.com/brick.html [3] https://books.google.com/books?id=cNdEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA722&lpg=... [4] http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Bricklayer/Hourly_Ra...

I think you're on the right track but your comparison fails to take into account the productivity of the bricklayer. A good bricklayer today ought to be more productive than an 1891 bricklayer, because he has motorized mixers, vehicles to move bricks to the right place, laser lines to level his rows, etc. Even in a craft that seems legendarily nontechnical, you have to give some credit to technological advancement. But it's still probably not enough to fully compensate for the 75% increase in labor cost.

You couldn't possibly hire the bricklayer directly today. The bricklayer would be hired as a subcontractor by the general contractor who would apply a surcharge.

Yea, and I see this as one of the main reasons, the quality of work is declining instead of improving (due to technical advances). In my country, when you build a building today, you hire a builder company. This company does no building themselves. They buy the parts of the building from subcontractors and some times the subcontractors buy the service needed from sub-subcontractors. And the company that finally does the job, some times, they even do it not with their own workers, but hire some cheap temporary staff to do the work.

So finally, who is to blame, when the window is not even? The builder? No! He did nothing. The windowing subcontractor?? Technical yes, but practical he just used hired workers. Some times ago, it was possible to say: Here we have a good company, with good reputation, the workers are proud to work for it ... Today, it is just a blaming game -- and when one of the subcontractors is sued because of bad work, they file bankruptcy, because there is also no financial basis -- the companies are just empty shells.

What also adds up to this is, that on every level of this game, only the price of the service is evaluated today -- not the quality. I also saw cases, where the builder company was a big one with great reputation, but the execution was awful! The reason: Bad contractors.

Another reason in my country is, that the requirements for workers in the building sector have been deliberately drastically lowered by the government, to make way for even cheaper work.

Today, (at least in my country) one that wants a house for his family to be build, has no means to decide, if the company will succeed and make a good house or will build a horror house. In most cases, there will be several topics where the execution was bad or really bad and you can call yourself lucky, when the additional costs after the house was finalized are moderate.

There are some really bad cases, where families thought the house would be ready in time and canceled their rent-flat just to be on the streets afterwards, because their house was not ready even months after the deadline. Some where never finished.

We have the same issue here in Australia. The quality of recent brick work is terrible, even the bricks are worse. It seems brickies are unable (or unwilling) to lay bricks anymore.

As I sit here in a rather old house (1920's) though never very expensive house I would say there are good and bad things about it. There's very little insulation, the heavy exterior is only a couple inches from some sort of plaster board on the inside causing many electrical boxes to be shallow. They really didn't care about the price of heating the house when they built it or maybe they did it to be cheap, but in any case that cost has gone way up. I do like an actual wood floor and heavy beams used in the construction of the basement and such. The plumbing is sometimes far more creative then is easy to fix now and I've found myself just cutting sections out and replacing it. I actually have some pipes made from lead going out so they can be bent in curves. Terracotta drains in the yard probably need to be replaced. The wiring was the first thing I replaced, knob and tube without grounds was just scary. O, and since the entire house was painted (yes they painted the formed bricks, not exactly like in the article though still bricks) with lead paint I certainly wouldn't eat something grown close to the house. Also I have steam heat which is interesting all by itself. So all in all, a not super expensive old building tends to be a lot of work these days and I would rather have a newer even if flimsy construction next time. I think I'll go along with the commenter who said the surviving old buildings are a bias because they are generally the best of the best of what was built in that time period.

There are almost no 100 year old brick buildings in San Francisco. Why? Because there was a big goddamn earthquake in 1906, and unreinforced masonry (which is to say, functionally almost all of it) deals badly with earthquakes in general. It deals especially badly with them when they are built on landfill.

There are also lots of mentions of survivorship bias, which is extremely relevant here.

Now that said, I find modern construction to be badly done in general, because it is almost all of it erected as cheaply as possible—and as cheaply as possible as measured by the shortest possible term metric. There is good stuff done still, and it is arguably cheaper over the ten year run or longer, but that's not what people buy and so it's not what the developers make. I'd like to claim this is shortsightedness but I can't shake the feeling that it's because real wages have been stagnant or sometimes declining since around 1972. There just isn't the money to spend.

N.B.: there are a lot of reasons why modern lumber seems like so much crap. About 95% of it is because folks are unwilling to pay for good lumber, as described above. Quality lumber, even quality construction lumber exists, but it's significantly more expensive than #2 common. Of the remainder, it's worth remembering that modern 2x4s are tend to be farmed in sustainable fashion using fast growth species like Douglas fir or Southern yellow pine. The stuff we were building with in the 30s and 40s? Quite a lot of that came from old growth forests, now irrevocably gone.

I live in Hanover, NH -- the town mentioned in the post -- and see that building every day. I also know the architect that designed that building personally, and would be happy to forward any questions to him.

I don't have any specific questions, but I'd love to see his response to the article! I'm pretty sure that Martin would add it to the bottom of the original if desired.

There are some modern construction techniques that make me nervous:

One is pre-stressed concrete. This has replaced I-beams for highway bridges. The problem here is how do you inspect them? With steel I-beams you can use your eyes. With concrete maybe you need some kind of ultrasound equipment to check the tension cables? Do you trust those responsible for long-term maintenance to do it?

Another is engineered wood I-beams for houses. Basically these are floor joists made out of plywood. How long will they last? What happens if they get wet? If there is a fire the house is gone because the floor joists will be ruined by the water to put the fire out.

There were certainly mistakes in the past as well. One is building with cast-iron beams. They look nice, but they crack.

Scuttlebutt I've heard. If a modern stick house built with plywood beams catches fire, the fire department will not try to save it because it's too dangerous to send a man up on the roof to cut access holes. This is because in a fire the glue in built up beams loses strength very quickly and the thing de-laminates.

  If there is a fire the house is gone because the floor 
  joists will be ruined by the water to put the fire out.
Do you have more information on this? I've known about the increased direct risk from fire, but haven't seen anything about damage from temporary water contact.

The only information I can find doesn't seem to agree with this, although it doesn't specifically prove otherwise: www.woodbywy.com/document/tb-213

Well I went looking for this and it's not as clear as I first thought. The fire risk is the biggest issue. The webbing for "TJI" is made out of OSB, and it seems there is definitely a long absorption time for this material so I'm thinking the collapse risk from water during firefighting is not all that high. Nobody is recommended ignoring long-term dampness (like from a leak) and the manufacture will certainly void the warranty.

This sort of "commodification", for lack of a better word, is visible in many areas, I think. I was thinking about this lately in relation to tools. It's great that you can now get tools for unbelievably low prices compared to, say, 50 years ago. This is a big win in many instances, because a shitty tool is often better than no tool at all, and it opens up access for many who would never be able to afford the old tools.

The flip side, however, is that it's devalued quality. It's remarkably difficult to actually find high-quality stuff these days. Even what used to be high-end brands have been bought up by some conglomerate that is now selling cheap Chinese versions under the old names.

There's still a market for quality, of course. You don't use tools from Harbor Freight when building rockets, but you'll never see those in any store you visit and they're likely to be priced far outside the reach of a normal person. It's like the middle ground has been lost, most stuff is cheap and low quality and then there is this small high end of really expensive stuff.

Isn't this simply an instance of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias?

The only brick buildings you can still look at from the 1800s are the ones that were built very well - all the shoddily-constructed buildings from that era have since disappeared.

Here's an example of a shoddy building from over a century ago that, through a historical quirk, is still around: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/san-francisco-shack-startin...

Yeah, the dorm in the linked article is totally better than that building. So while there are good buildings from that era, let's not kid ourselves, there were also a lot of horrible buildings that are rightfully no longer around. I would be willing to bet that the average quality of new construction is better now than it was then. If nothing else, the pervasive use of aluminum/vinyl siding and tar-asphalt shingle roofs yields buildings that better withstand the elements that old-style painted wood.

I saw this brickwork on a building in nyc's financial district on a building maybe around 50-100 years old.


That's structural brick covered in stucco, which was pretty common in American cities in the 18th and 19th centuries. You see it a lot in areas with low-quality clay, since the resulting brick is porous and brittle, necessitating a stucco covering to protect it from the elements and not look awful. It might not be poor construction, just ugly because it's not intended to ever be seen. Of course, by design the stucco needs to be replaced every few decades, so who knows if it's been kept up.

That contrasts with the article's 1891 example of a building where the brickwork was both structural and decorative, requiring maximum attention to detail.

Did you zoom in on the brick underneath? It's helter skelter.

He is right about a couple of things, though he does not seem to have much of a grasp about buildings in general.

He is right that sills (whatever material they are made of) should always protrude. I agree that the 1970's and 80's will probably be considered the low point in building (and were certainly the low point in automobile quality).

He apparently doesn't understand that the brick header in the older building is actually weight-bearing while the one in the newer building is a veneer covering a poured-concrete structural header.

He misses the main point: the older building is much better quality because it cost much more in relative terms. Buildings, like most of our modern products have declined in quality because we don't spend as much on them. But we have far more stuff - buildings and everything else.

In Somerville, MA there is an area with some converted loft buildings including new construction loft-style buildings. The new building walls use masonry blocks (large grey blocks) for structure, with decorative brick on the outside. On the inside, there is a cavity for insulation and wiring, and an interior brick wall.

The masonry work is excellent, and is probably the best way to create a wall that looks like brick inside and out yet meets modern insulation demands. But it is a gratuitously expensive construction technique to try and make a building look old and classic. If you don't value that particular aesthetic, you would select other materials. If you want to pander to that aesthetic but don't have a premium loft budget, you might end up with crap like that dorm.

How do these buildings compare in cost, adjusted for inflation?

A lot of examples of "superior" technology from 19th century turn out to be expensive stuff created for upper class, compared to mass-produced items of today that are affordable for the general population.

It is, probably, a global shift from slow and costly perfectionism to quick and cheap "good enough" (in worst possible sense of "getting shit done"). What they call a cost cutting or " optimization " is merely a form of cheating and concealing inability to and unwillingness to provide quality.

BTW, the most of buildings with have collapsed in Kathmandu around the new bus stand were these which has been built quickly with cost cutting (chap, thin steel bars, thick cheap cement layers between bricks, etc).

And this trend is everywhere, from clotches to Java. The age of getting shit done.)

Is there a non-paywalled version?

'This article is available for GBA PRIME members only'

Easily ripped-off because their paywall needs a new word to describe simultaneously terrible, useless and laughable that isn't Donald or Trump. In most desktop browsers, press <ESC> (or stop on mobile browsers) to stop loading content while the page is still loading in just the right time window and the paywall ask will be less likely to popup (but still nondeterministically succeed sometimes).

Or read just the the text here:


Bank buildings built before 1929 tend to be massive masonry structures with greek columns, marble, etc. Ones build later tend to be cracker boxes in strip malls.

My theory is that the older banks needed to impress their clients with stability, conservativeness, safety, responsibility, etc. After FDIC, customers looked to the government for that, and so banks no longer needed to spend the money on the building.

The massive, glittering vaults are sadly gone now, too. The money exists as data on a server somewhere, little need for a vault.

> After FDIC, customers looked to the government for that

Or an alternate theory: bank owners used to be local businesspeople, who would have been (rightly) embarrassed and ashamed to erect a shoddy and short-lived structure in their hometown. Now banks are at least regional, if not national or global, and care more about saving a few pennies for shareholders than they do about the communities they inhabit.

Combine this with the fact that consumers and "fellow citizens" don't give a crap about good buildings and good urbanism, and here we are with crackerbox drivethrough shite that nobody gives a damn about because it'll be bulldozed in 30 years, after a brief stint as a laser tag venue.

This is close to what I think. To a great extent buildings have been commodified. And businesses typically do not own buildings, they are tenants.

The bulldozed in 30 years attitude is post war nihilism in a nutshell. (In thirty years will be living on mars or dead from nuclear fire)

I think the strip mall thing happened much later than 1929. I can think of specific bank branches from my east coast childhood that I would estimate were built in the 60s or 70s that are still trying to pull off the "grandeur" style.

While most money does exist electronically, you'd be surprised at the amounts of actual cash and gold which are stored in major banking centers.

I don't buy any of it for even a second.

On my way to work, they're building this wonderful brick sidewalk. While still just a side walk and not a building, it's remarkably well crafted and detailed. I think we CAN do it, we just choose not to, economically.

I think somebody would rather save a lot of money and build something "good enough" these days than invest in craftsmanship. Also, I bet you don't have to look far to find a bunch of counter examples in modern times.

Someone might be able to do it, but they're not easy to find or cheap.

There was a structural brick house that remained an eyesore in a DC neighborhood for years after a car accident demolished part of its cylindrical masonry wall (picture a round castle tower). The owner gave the reason that the masonry skills to construct this type of feature were not something easily found, and had been a sort of lost art, and they had been looking for a long time before finally getting it repaired.

My perception is that parks, walkways, fences etc have gotten better. Even bridges are getting beautiful again.

It's houses that seem to go downhill. But not single family houses, only bigger buildings.


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