Allison Arief’s article in the NYT, Shifting the Suburban Paradigm is a good one, but this particular statement needs addressing:
These continue to be built the same way they have for over a century, and usually not as well. Walls and windows are thin, materials cheap, design (and I use the term loosely) not well-considered.”
I would say that each part of this statement is false, including the bit about design. The idea that craftsmanship is dead and newer houses are more poorly-constructed than the farm-houses of yore is an oft-repeated one, and appeals to one’s sense of nostalgia, but it’s not true, for one simple reason: building codes. The houses of today are more structurally sound, more fireproof, safer and more well-designed than the houses that were built before the enforcement of building codes.
Take stairways as an example. When my sister was first married she and her husband bought a 100-year old farmhouse. The “stairway” leading up to the second story was almost a ladder, it was so steep. The stairs varied wildly in height, and you had to duck to get through the doorway at the bottom. If you go up a staircase in any new home, you won’t find one with a riser height of more than 7.75″. The heights of the risers won’t vary by more than 0.375″ and you won’t have to duck thanks to the 6′ 8″ minimum headroom.
Walls and windows are thin? With 2×6 exterior walls and seismic codes and massive LVL headers being installed over even small windows and doors? And don’t even try and tell me that the cheapest vinyl window at Menards is less energy-efficient than the single-pane site-built windows of old farmhouses.
You could look at nearly every aspect of home building — structural support, basement drainage, site grading, insulation and energy efficiency, location and number of electrical outlets, life safety — and see vast improvements over the homes of 75 years ago.
Of course, all of this code enforcement has had the effect of making houses more expensive as well. That’s the price of living in a developed nation. As much as builders and home-buyers might complain sometimes, the fact is that as bad as America’s recent natural disasters have been, an accidental fire can no longer reduce an entire city to ashes, and moderate earthquakes no longer result in death counts in the thousands.
America is, by and large, not a giant trailer park; and for this we may well thank those who maintain our building code’s boundaries on the “invisible hand” of the markets.