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A Brief History of Building Quality

Building quality in America

America has a mixed history of building quality over its 200+ years. From its colonial roots to the baby-boom years of mass production to the complex engineering of today the style and quality of buildings has changed greatly.

If you’re looking to buy a house, knowing when it was built is just as good a determiner of the building quality as a report from a home inspector. With that in mind I have put together this brief history of building quality so you can better understand where your house may fit into the story.

Building Quality In America

From the earliest times in American homes were designed and built by two groups of people.

The first group were called housewrights which is a term that has disappeared from current language. What is a housewright? A housewright was someone who was trained and educated in the contruction of houses. In colonial times, they were responsible for every aspect of the construction from the felling of the trees to produce the lumber needed to the plastering and painting.

The homes they built still stand today, save the ones destroyed by fire or demolition. Their understanding of the whole structure created a high quality building that could withstand centuries of weather and abuse.

The second group were the owners of the houses themselves. These were usually simple vernacular homes. Sod homes, simple frame and stick built homes many of which have been lost to the sands of time due to their rudimentary design and general lack of knowledge of building practices.

Some have survived through sheer luck as their builders stumbled into resilient designs, but largely these homes didn’t last more than a couple generations.

The Big Change

This pattern continued from the 17th century until the late 19th century with the rise of the local builder who replaced the housewright. The builders of this time were the predecessors to today’s general contractor. With the advent of balloon framing and fading of timber framing they could design solid, but still basic homes, that would be constructed according to local patterns and built by skilled trades like carpenters and plasterers. Housing stock from the period from the end of the Civil War until the 1930s followed this pattern and was generally of high quality though not quite of the same ilk as the homes constructed by the housewrights.

Then in the middle of the 20th century things changed dramatically. Over the course of the ten years from 1945 to 1955 homebuilding changed from the builder model to a manufacturing mindset to meet the immense need for housing.

The skills to build a house were simplified and broken down into separate trades even further and the siloing of information became more pronounced than at any other time in history. Construction speeds skyrocketed. At its peak a new home was finished every 16 minutes in Levittown in the 1950s.

Constrction workers were simply any able-bodied man who could quickly assemble the pieces of a home pre-designed by a contracting firm.

Mechanical cooling meant house siting and design was thrown out the door and you could build something quickly and cheaply wherever you wanted and with whatever materials you wanted because we could always crank up the furnace or down the AC to our whims. Unsurprisingly, housing stock built in this time period are some of the least energy efficient homes in the country. Lacking the passive heating and cooling devices of earlier homes and without the insulation of newer construction.

Fast forward to the 1970s and America’s most recent housing stock was only 20 years old and already aging poorly. Sick house syndrome was rampant as homeowners stuffed insulation into walls unknowingly creating mold and rot issues. Local building codes began showing up as governments tried to resolve the issue of quantity over quality in homebuilding, but by this time the landscape was littered with poorly built homes.

When Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in 1992 it destroyed more than 50,000 homes and caused an estimated $26 billion in damage making it the most destructive natural disaster in American history at the time.

Florida reacted by greatly improving its building codes and through the years building codes across the country have continually improved to keep pace with advancements in building technology.

The Future

As the best contractors will tell you, “Code is the minimum.” If we expect our buildings to last more than a generation then following building codes is not the answer. Exceeding building codes and not being tied to the code in a legalistic way, but rather seeing the heart behind it and innovating with a long term mindset better sets us up for success with our built environment.

Let us avoid the replacement mentality and stop building with planned obsolescence as a guiding principle when we have the technology to build lasting structures that will stand for centuries.

As John Rusking said, “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent efforts.” Let us build with intelligent efforts.

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