Monday, March 25, 2013


I often hear people say of some old house, “Wow, they don’t build ‘em like this anymore.” To which I’m often tempted to add, “And it’s a good thing, too.” There’s a lot to be said for the aesthetic of older homes--I’ve said a good deal of it myself--but on the technical side, houses are far better built today than they were just thirty years ago, let alone sixty or a hundred years.  

For one, we know a lot more about protecting houses from all the bad things that can happen to them. Take fire safety: Older houses were built with wooden lath that made perfect kindling, single-wall furnace flues that could rust out and overheat, and damage- and overload-prone knob-and-tube wiring that could smolder and start fires. Modern houses are built with flame-resistent gypsum wallboard, double-wall flues, and better protected wiring systems. They’re also required to have smoke detectors, perhaps the most worthwhile life safety feature of all.

New houses also hold up much better in earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes.  Prewar houses typically had little or no foundation reinforcement and were sheathed with horizontal boards that gave very little lateral strength. They also had rather casually connected floors, walls, and roofs. Today’s houses, on the other hand, have well reinforced foundations, enormously strong plywood shearwalls to resist wracking, and a host of inexpensive yet very effective metal connectors, the sum of which allows new homes to survive natural catastrophes that would probably destroy an older home.

But safety isn’t the only thing that’s improved. New houses are several times more energy efficient than those of just a generation ago, thanks to mandates for better floor, wall, ceiling and duct insulation, double-glazed windows, and more efficient furnaces and lighting.

They’re also more durable. Modern copper water pipes, for example, will easily last the life of the structure, which certainly can’t be said for the rust-prone galvanized steel pipe found in most older homes.  And the “engineered lumber” used in today’s houses--much of it made from mill waste that used to be thrown out or burned--is stronger pound for pound than the solid-sawn lumber used by builders of yore. Even modern glass is better: While the french doors in old houses contain plain glass that shatters into dagger-like shards, the tempered glass required in modern doors crumbles into harmless little granules when broken.

Given that today’s homes are technically superior to yesterday’s, why do developers try so hard to make their new houses look as if they were old? And why do so many people still prefer to live in an old house with all the infirmities noted above?  No doubt it has something to do with the peculiar human tendency to idealize bygone times. Or as the writer and humorist Finley Peter Dunne put it, “The past always looks better than it was; it’s only pleasant because it isn’t here.”

That can’t be the whole story, though. To my mind, when people say they don’t build houses like they used to, they’re not really talking about lumber, pipes, and wiring. They’re talking about the one elusive quality you can’t build into any new house, no matter what the price:  The inimitable dignity of a genuine past.

Monday, March 11, 2013



In the early 1930s, the Pennsylvania Railroad hired the famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to restyle its exceedingly ugly electric locomotives.  True to form, the Parisian-born Loewy came up with the GG-1, a stunningly fluid design sheathed in streamlined steel.  The railroad gamely built a prototype, stitching it together with thousands of rivets in the usual manner of the time.  When Loewy was first presented this real-life embodiment of his concept, he demanded in his strong French accent:  “What are all those buttons?”

There’s a lesson here for people designing buildings as well:  Even a great design can be done in by the sort of unavoidable, nuts-and-bolts infrastructure items every building requires--visible pipes, wires, vents, flues, meters, and what have you.  As unsexy as they are, don’t fail to think through these kinds of details, don’t put them off to the last minute, and never, ever leave them up to installers to figure out as they go along.  Here are some notorious examples:

•  Gas meters, electric meters, and electrical entrance panels--none of which are very lovely to look at--should be assigned to a spot that’s completely invisible from the street, ideally in a recessed or screened area.  Never place these items on the front of the building.  Since meters are increasingly read remotely, access is less of an issue than it used to be, but you should still check with your local utility for any restrictions on placement. 

•  Figure out where each and every downspout will go.  Unless you’re using them as outright ornaments--a rare strategy--then the less visible they are, the better.  Never put downspouts on the front of the house if the sides will serve just as well. Don’t snake them all over the walls to avoid obstructions--figure out the most direct and least conspicuous route ahead of time.  Lastly, don’t use more downspouts than you need.  Contrary to usual practice, it’s seldom necessary to have more than one downspout for every forty or so feet of gutter. 

•  Don’t let plumbing vents sprout like acne on an otherwise pristine roof.  First off, have your plumber combine nearby vents together at attic level, leaving the fewest possible pipes penetrating the roof.  If necessary, run the remaining vents laterally so that they exit the roof in a reasonably inconspicuous place. This extra effort will be doubly worthwhile, since in addition to looking bad, plumbing vents are among the most likely spots for leaks to develop . 

•  Water heater and furnace flues should also be barred from conspicuous roof surfaces whenever possible. In modernist designs, flues can sometimes be used as a design feature, but that trick won’t wash with traditional styles.  Instead, you can usually run multiple flues into a single false chimney, which both reduces the rooftop clutter and offers potential for an interesting design feature.

Oh, and about that streamlined locomotive:  At Raymond Loewy’s insistence, all the subsequent examples of the GG-1 were built with a smooth, welded skins instead of being “buttoned” together with rivets.  Today, it’s considered among the great industrial designs of all time.