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Old House Fetishizers of America

old house fetish

Alright, this week I had the painful experience of reading an article on The Atlantic that can only be found in America as the fruits of common core math begin sprouting in the minds of today’s journalists and city planners.

On the journalistic scale of 1-10 this one came in at a solid -126. That may seem like an arbitrary number but I can assure you the number has merit unlike this story.

The article is called Stop Fetishizing Old Homes by M. Nolan Gray apparently attempting to capitalize on the M. Night Shyamalan first initial only name game that made his movies so riveting. Who is M. Nolan Gray? According to his bio, he is a professional city planner and a housing researcher at UCLA. He is also the author of the upcoming book certain to be a staple on every bookshelf called Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. I’ve pre-ordered my copy and you can too at Bookshop.org.

The thesis of the article is that America has an unhealthy obsession with old houses which, in the author’s eloquent words, “just kind of sucks”. A clearly definable statement that is not subjective at all.  He posits that new construction is “better on nearly every conceivable measure” and “one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation.” On a more serious note, I’m not sure how he discovered the rotating top secret “righteousness club” meetings I and other preservation influencers have, but I’m determined to get to the bottom of the leak. -21 points for snooping

He continues “Old housing is simply less safe” due to lead paint and lead pipes. He also sites improper, aging wiring, and these buildings lack of building materials needed to stop a blaze as a fire hazard. You know unlike the newer, better stuff like vinyl siding and spray foam which are so flammable it takes little more than my ex-girlfriend walking by to be ignited by that old flame. -35 points for fire misinformation

What struck me most was not the audacity and smugness to write an article about how anyone who disagrees with him is clearly out of their mind. Clearly us old-housers suffer from lead poisoning which makes us Cuckoo-for-COCOA-PUFFS. But what really chapped my hide was the utter disregard for facts and lack of real world experience.

One of the immeasurable improvements present in new construction, the honorable Mr. Gray sites, is how “noise is appropriately now recognized as one of the biggest quality of life issues in cities” and how new buildings get this right while old buildings almost always have no noise dampening features.

Not only is this verifiably untrue, which anyone who has lived in a home with 1” thick plaster walls that block not only my voice but stop the wi-fi signal from 5 feet away, but the opposite is more typically the case.

He lays lavish praise on his former home, a mid-2000s apartment in DC, that had such excellent sound-blocking due to fiberglass insulation, clearly the gold standard of modern sound-blocking to Mr. Gray. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m truly happy for him that he found the one apartment building in America where sound-blocking was done effectively unlike every other apartment the rest of us have lived in where your 23-yr-old neighbor feels obligated to keep you awake until 1 AM with another rendition of Dirty Pop. True story and God Bless N’Sync. -42 points for keeping me awake

Seriously has this man lived in any of the modern housing the rest of us have? Wood trim that falls apart faster than a Hollywood marriage, double pane windows that fog faster than my shower door, and mold growth that, well…I’ll just say that most of today’s housing stock reminds me of a 4-week old loaf of bread on a Floridian kitchen counter.

But the pièce de résistance of the whole article is when he prescribes the final solution for the Old House Fetishizers of America (a new club I just started thank to his suggestion). The solution? The Japanese model, where homes are torn down after only 30 years and thrown in the landfill (aka Tokyo Bay) and new homes are built to replace them. This, he believes, results in “a new house with all the modern amenities and design innovation that entails.”


As someone who lived in Japan, I can assure you that Japanese home construction is not something that America will cherish. Japanese houses are made with some of the cheapest prefabbed materials on earth and provide the lowest quality of life I have experienced. Most middle class Japanese houses were built with materials that wouldn’t make the quality cut at IKEA. -28 points for making me reference IKEA.

Add those all up and you get -126 on our journalistic rating.

It’s clear that facts are fickle things that come only sparingly across the desk of Mr. Gray. Much like a unicorn bathing by the moonlight.

As someone who shows such concern for climate issues throughout this article I would think that proposing the solution of razing and dumping what would amount to trillions of metric tons of waste into our landfills and pulling the equal amount of materials out of the earth each year to replace those old houses would cause the error function on his mental calculator to display, but apparently that function has been disabled on the Ocasio-Cortesean model he uses.

This article proves once again that people who have never lived in an old house should not be trusted to make decisions about what we as a country should do with our old houses. So, as someone who has been inside more old houses than Hugh Hefner has Playboy bunnies, let me say that there is only one “final solution” for old houses.

If you want an old house you should buy an old house. If you want a new house you should buy a new house. Neither group should have any say in a free country like this is about how other people choose to live their lives and in what kind of home they choose to live those lives. And if you can’t do math, then stop promoting a policy where 2+2=zebra.

And that’s today’s SoapBox.

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37 thoughts on “Old House Fetishizers of America

  1. It is now March 17th, and the Gray essay still bugs me. I reviewed your essay in response several times, and the comments your readers wrote, and my essay to The Atlantic; I’m not surprised we all agree.
    What continues to bother me is why a well-known writer, and more importantly, a publication dating to the 1850s with a distinguished editorial record, would publish such a poorly written and researched diatribe. A more prejudiced and irrational bit of slop would be difficult to find.
    What also continues to trouble me is that The Atlantic did not view historic preservation, community preservation, and the environment as worthy subjects for a more intelligent examination.
    The original essay is still on their website, although all of our letters have been deleted.
    It was interesting to read your remarks on Japan, and the expectations of Japanese homeowners. I completed some design work on the American ambassador’s residence in Tokyo. We had to work hard to use American appliances as a result of the voltage differences between Japan and the rest of the world, and North-South differences within the country itself. In addition, I had the opportunity to work on a Japanese house. As you observed, Americans would never be satisfied with Japanese accommodations. Refrigerators in the floor? Dishwashers in a kitchen drawer? And all because the house was so small!

    Finally, I enjoy your blog very much. Thanks and keep writing to us.
    Gregory Hubbard

  2. While I drove admiringly past some beautiful craftsman homes in beautiful old towne Orange today on my way to my old office to happily use my old bathroom with old plumbing and sit in my Victorian decor psychotherapy practice, I was subjected to the dismaying, condescending ignorance and pontificating sales pitch inflicted by Prof. Gray on NPR. Than you Mr. Sidler, for salvaging my faith in humanity and for giving me a smile with your hilariously witty well constructed counterpoint to his balsa-wood and Elmer’s glue effort. I’ll take the lovely spirit of an old home or hotel any day over the stale soulless cell block boxes being built, and I am happy that those who prefer them leave more space available for us to enjoy the grand old dames.

  3. “New is better.” The mantra of those insufferable types who, while raising the alarm for our environment, consume conspicuously those things that are fads. In sure course, a new crop of those that knows better will consider such things beneath them. The roots of tradition will last while the leaves of the modern will fall with the first strong wind.

  4. Shocking that The Atlantic would publish such a dolt. I wouldn’t trade my 120-year-old house for anything. Thanks for speaking up!

  5. What is that guy smoking?! Sure, old houses have their issues (we’re renovating an 1832 house now, last reno’d in the late 1940s, including total rewiring and plumbing and a few windows (also from the ’40s-’50s). The only level floor is in the upstairs bath, which we had leveled, but I wouldn’t trade this for anything newer than about 1920. It has stood for 189 years, through Upstate NY’s harsh weather and high winds, and it will stand again as long. Yes, we’re sealing cracks where old sheathing has shrunk and are adding insulation (unlined) in the attic and in the 1849 kitchen where the old plaster was really shot, but the old part of the house stayes pretty comfortable year-round, while the 1985 and 1992 additions heat up much faster in summer and stay cold in winter. New construction is flimsy and fragile. This house was BUILT!

  6. Scott – Thanks for addressing this issue … are you submitting your article to the Atlantic (If not, I encourage you to as a rebuttal). Having lived in historic houses (1870 Gothic Revival, 1918 Bungalow, 1805 Plantation Plain, and, currently, 1850 Greek Revival) and, of course, extremely familiar with new construction … you are spot on. Though, Mr. Gray might have miscalculated in that most typical new construction won’t make it to the 30-year tear down point. Not only do we need to consider quality of materials, character, and keeping material out of landfills (via preservation and adaptive re-use), there is the not insignificant consideration of history/antiquity. Have you ever seen any town flag or advertisement aimed at “hominess” that depicts a vinyl-sided ranch home? Me neither. Mr. Gray is likely one of those, however, who refuse to let the facts get in the way of his opinions (Samuel Clemens … though such a phrase would be lost on Mr. Gray because Mr. Clemens is not a contemporary author and, therefore, has nothing to offer us in today’s world). Keep up the great work!

  7. My take on this article was that his main points dealt more with using landmarking and historic district creation to lock single family districts of homes, often including much from the mid 20th century, into place and to prevent redevelopment of prime areas in cities to provide more housing to workers near where they work, exacerbating a critical housing shortage. This has been the experience in cities like DC where some absurd amount of the city (40+%) is locked into single family only districts through zoning and historic district designations. He also makes it clear that there are some homes, mostly much older, that deserve to be preserved, but that much from the in between period is not worth saving, such as his mid-century Los Angeles Dingbat that he lives in and will likely pancake in the next earthquake. The headline and intro to the article were clear clickbait which worked really well, because this article has stirred up a flirty of discussion everywhere.

  8. Thank you,Scott, for your article. I went and read the Atlantic article and looked up the house referred to a the start of Mr. Gray’s article. The picture of the Walnut Creek, CA house is of a partially destroyed, charred, charmless 1968 residential structure, and certainly not what I would call an “old home” deemed worthy of renovation–except from an economic standpoint. And from an economic standpoint many choose to keep at least some portion of an existing home to save on local building fees. As an owner of a 1910’ish single-wall “farmhouse” that was originally about 850 square feet, I have transformed it into my “castle” of 1250 sq. ft while keeping/adding charm and not buying or building new. Your last paragraph is the truth of the matter, and the worst culprits, in my opinion, are the “investors” who have turned the housing market into an impenetrable wall that many deserving folks will never be able to breach because of the costs. Thanks for your article.

  9. Oh I hope with all my heart that he reads this. I would consider myself pretty intermediate in the world of old housing topics. But even before I lived in a 100 year old home I knew that modern building materials are extremely flammable. I believe the data says modern homes burn 6 times faster than an old home. Really no wonder. Everything today is done quickly and cheaply. I’d recommend listening to the Clearstory podcast titled “healthy homes” to learn more about “how great” those modern materials are. Also this guy works at ucla in the housing field!? Honestly should be fired simply for the shear lack of knowledge that he has in his own field.

    Ok getting off my soap box now too 🙂

  10. Our 100 year-old house has its issues but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We’re in a neighborhood of housing age-mates with mature trees, wide front porches and walk-to convenience. We’ll said, Scott!

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