The Disposable House

By Scott Sidler • July 15, 2019

The disposable houseDo you remember when we used to make enduring things in this country? Solid, well-built things that would last for generations. I was too young to grow up in a time before plastics, solidly in the midst of the Replacement Generation. I grew up in suburbia surrounded by things of little value in houses that were a commodity and so cheaply built that they would need constant rounds of replacement parts to keep them going.

I recently had the chance to drive past my childhood home while on vacation with my family in Plano, TX (a northern suburb of Dallas). The house looked familiar, but I was struck with the how much it had changed. Fortunately thanks to Zillow I was able to take a peek inside as well and you might be surprised at what I found (or maybe you won’t!)

I found the bones of a house that only vaguely resembled the house of my youth. This was not due to additions or other changes an owner might make to improve the house or add modern functionality. After all a lot of has changed since we lived there in the early 80s. The changes were more along the lines of replacement for the sake of maintenance.

A lot of it is expected. In small doses it makes sense but when taken as a whole I realized just how wasteful our houses are today, and it led me to the idea of the disposable house.

The Disposable House

This is not some new bio-degradable house I’m toting here. It’s about how we build with such terrible products using short-sighted techniques that we have torn down historic, enduring structures and inadvertently created a country of disposable houses.

Wondering what I saw in my old house that got me so fired up? Well, here’s the list of things that had been changed out since I was there. And remember, I understand that these things need changing, the point is why are we using so many items that need replacement after such a short time?

  • Replacement windows
  • Both exterior doors
  • Wood shingles replaced with composite
  • New aluminum gutters
  • All landscaping save two big trees
  • All carpets
  • All cabinets
  • Tile floors replaced with wood
  • All light fixtures
  • All plumbing fixtures
  • Countertops
  • All kitchen appliances
  • All fencing

That’s a lot of stuff in the landfill, and I think my house is probably on the good side compared to other houses. Compare that to a lot of the historic houses I renovate and you’ll find a striking disparity.

Historic homes I see typically have their original windows and doors, they retain their original wood and tile floors, the plaster walls are largely intact, The original metal or tin shingle roofs are still in place, original box gutters or yankee gutters are still working like they were 100 years ago, even a lot of the old light fixtures and a few plumbing fixtures are still doing their job.

Do we really have so much prosperity and so little sense that we don’t see the wastefulness of this mindset? We are building disposable houses that are used and trashed like Kleenex when we’re done instead of enduring structures that our children or our children’s children will get to see or experience. This has to change.

The Story of The Dust Pan

To this day there is a dust pan under my mothers sink that was originally her mother’s. It’s a simple metal dust pan that quickly reminds me of my childhood whenever I visit and my children make a mess that I have to clean up. This simple object has served her household for probably six decades!

No, a dust pan isn’t a big deal, but it’s a reminder of the mindfulness that went into even the little things once upon a time. This simple metal dust pan doesn’t crack or wear out like the plastic ones today. It wasn’t design to be replaced every couple years which is probably bad business sense but it makes good social sense.

If we would only build houses with the technology we have today using the mindset of 100 years ago we would have the finest homes imaginable. Lasting, enduring, and beautiful is a legacy we can choose to leave, but first we have to make the choice to do it.

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22 thoughts on “The Disposable House”

  1. I grew up in a big old house just outside of Boston. Built in 1909; my parents bought it in 1966, and stayed there until 2010. During that time, very little changed, other than wallpaper, exterior and interior paint, water heater. That’s all that I can recall.
    My home was new construction, built in 1997. In that time I’ve replaced all interior flooring, all lighting, interior and exterior, HVAC system, roof, some components of a wood deck. Added insulation, replaced exterior doors.
    I recently drove past that 1909 house. They’ve replaced windows, but it still has the original slate roof, and the original oak front door.

  2. I recently had to replace a six-burner stainless steel cooktop that was fine, save for a tiny part that helped pump gas into one of the burners and was leaking. The appliance repairman, who has been in business for 40 years, couldn’t find a replacement part anywhere. When I said that the cooktop was “only” 15 years old, he laughed and said the lifespan of the average appliance you can buy today (dishwasher, washer, dryer) is five (five!) years. After which the manufacturers expect you will toss it for an upgraded model or replace (not repair) it if it breaks. Those discarded appliances will be clogging landfills until well into the next century.

  3. I echo your sentiments, Scott. I live in a 1913 home in an historic district in Virginia. Several contractors tried to convince me to put in the less expensive square gutters, even when I told them regulations required the round ones, stating that I could get away with it. Still looking for someone in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area who cares as much about my house as I do!

  4. There’s a prolific developer in Portland, OR who claims that the lifespan of a house is 50 years. (Apparently he’s never been to Europe.) This is his excuse for razing and replacing 100-year-old bungalows with urban McMansions. I’ve watched his houses go up and would be surprised if they survive 50 years. Disposable houses, indeed.

      1. I agree completely! We have gone crazy, absolutely crazy! We want everything now, and don’t want to save up for ‘it’ or wait. Thus to satisfy this insanity, we create products as cheaply as possible, which is overseas – WE are responsible for the flight of jobs overseas because we want everything now…… No saving, no wait time, and no planning. We build homes and apartments as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible, but ignore the needs of the poor, the disabled and the elderly. Some unfortunate people fit the bill on all three.

        We do cater to the very wealthiest of the upper middle class and the really wealthy, although the quality is no better. I live in earthquake country – we have significant earthquakes – and I’ve watched as the framing for the very expensive and very large, three story condominium complex under construction next door, has been completed in less time than it once took to frame a couple of private homes.

        The real tragedy is that the rest of the planet has followed our lead. We ignore reason, and presume that the garbage we dump in the oceans magically goes away. Many cities, in fact whole countries, pump their sewage into our rivers and oceans, as though they can absorb unlimited waste. The sacred Ganges River is so polluted that you can see human waste floating by. We have literally turned the planet into a giant toilet.

        We ignore global warming,. It will be inconvenient and troublesome to change our wasteful behavior, and solving the problem will cut into corporate profits by creating sources of ‘clean energy’ they do not control – so we’re told global warming is an anti-American plot to destroy American jobs by the nasty and communistic Chinese. There is documented proof that global environmental change began after the ‘Industrial Revolution,’ was well underway, but we ignore it. Major cities and population centers around the globe are already threatened with flooding, and we pretend it will not happen.

        Now all this does not stem solely from cheap and poorly made plastic replacement sash windows installed in historic homes, or cheaply built unplanned urban expansion, or the very inexpensive plastic T.V. we just bought that was made in Thailand because American workers need higher salaries just to survive – not the greed so often portrayed. But all this is part of a larger picture. We have become satisfied with the dirt cheap and wasteful world we have created. We have created an Oreo cookie world – the chocolate isn’t very good, and the filling is hydrogenated vegetable fat flavored with fake vanilla, but it will do, and we’ll dump the plastic packaging into the garbage and hope someone else deals with it.

        So you are correct. Our perspective is skewed, and we have ignored what’s possible.

        1. Sorry Mr. Sidler, I forgot to say how much I really enjoyed your essay. It was carefully thought out and very well written. Thoughtless oversight on my part. My sincere apologies.
          I hope my rant is not offensive.
          Gregory Hubbard

  5. I have thought this too and agree with you 100%. Whenever I talk about the value of old windows and houses, people say they are expensive and impractical and it is easier to rip it all out. With two old houses, I understand but don’t agree. I even have a friend who says, “Why would you want a used house!”

    Honestly, if we are not willing to put quality into new homes, they should be truly disposable, like an upscale mobile home. Unfortunately those tend to linger longer than they should and then become eyesores because no one wants to spend the money to properly dispose of them.

    I also think there should be exterior home maintenance ordinances to at least keep buildings painted and patched u and more penalties for demolition by neglect. The true cost is not borne by the owner but by society. .

  6. One component of the “disposable house” concept is that components of new construction are meant to be “hands off” until they fail. Windows, plumbing, doors, flooring, even appliances. People just don’t want to spend time or money with regular maintenance. You look at schools. I live here in Portland where the beautiful schools that were built 100 years ago have some maintenance issues and people get angry at the need for maintenance. The new schools I have seen are prefab buildings, metal roofs and a construction envelop that is like a vacuum. But then it’s like our kids are going to school in prisons. Retrofitting our homes and to match this maintenance free mindset means replacing many Historical features. But replacement just means putting houses into the stream of disposable components that, instead of regular maintenance, need regular replacement. Why this shift has occurred is can be an interesting debate and one worth having. I, for one, think this is a temporary shift. And of course the true cost of new limited life products isn’t fully realized.

  7. Some time ago when I was living in a ’70’s built suburb, I heard a tradesman say, “These houses were all built to self-destruct in 20 years.” That sums it up as well as anything.

  8. So true. I love the dust pan story! Our house had many of its late-‘30s original features stripped out before we got here, but we’re trying to be intentional with what we put back in…focusing on appropriate choices that will last.

  9. Old houses rock!
    Almost 4 years ago we bought a 115-year-old house on the main street of an old fishing village in Nova Scotia. It has great bones, but the realtor told us it needed a lot of work. Which we could tell. Because we live 13 hours away in the U.S. we presently only get there a few weeks of the year there so work proceeds slowly and our budget forces a lot of DIY. But it has a million-dollar view and is waterfront, acquired for pretty short money.

    The ceilings are 9+ feet high, it has 11 windows that are 3 x 5’8″, and as many smaller ones. It has a two-story turret, large rooms, front to back airflow off the ocean and more. It will be a few years until it’s “done,” but will be worth it. Not many modern homes can match it for overall build quality, and despite the present shortcomings in plumbing, electrical and other areas it is great. We can even look through the dining room and living room and see the ocean from the back yard.

  10. If your parents bought the house new (not mentioned), then they outfitted it in the fashions of that time period. Generally, those fashions remain until the next set of owners.
    No, the greater travesty is placing the incredibly ugly new houses, many with non-functional exterior features, in an area of older homes. The older homes all have large, wide open exterior front porches and usually large Florida rooms away from the setting sun. All the new houses have barely enough front porch space to enter the house and almost an entirely closed off exterior with few windows and one small door.

    1. I agree most new house are largely unfunctional and have only cosmetic nods to the original structures they seek to mimick.
      The we lived in was not brand new when we bought it but it was largely unchanged since it was built only about 5 years prior to when we moved in.

  11. I lost count when we were house hunting 4 yrs ago how many houses looked great on the outside but inside were totally void of character. They were old homes but were “updated”.
    When we bought our house, our GC suggested we put in all new windows. That will never happen. When we started a demo of one upstairs room to add another bathroom (the house only had 1) and much needed closets, the same GC, was just throwing everything out the window. When I came home from work (my husband was there, but he wasn’t as well informed), I started picking through the old drywall to save all the baseboards I could. As it had rained, some were beyond use and some were damaged from being thrown out the window. The upstairs rooms also had little wooden doorstops. Well, guess what the GC threw out along with everything else? It wasn’t a work of art, but that isn’t the point. Many months later, he asked where the stop was because the stops he put in the hinges were denting the doors. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes (one of the reasons we kept him on was he was also a friend). With the exception of the shower light/exhaust fan, every light in our bathroom (10 in all! There are 4 closets) is vintage. The bathroom is almost finished (over a year and a half later!) and we used 100 yr old tile as a border in the shower. We also converted an old vanity (I don’t normally condone this kind of thing but the vanity is special to me and it seemed like a way to make it have a purpose!) into our sink. I’ve stripped the floor and am in the sanding stage. I don’t understand why someone would buy an old home just to rip out all the character (our kitchen is another disaster altogether, but when we get closer to remodeling it, I hope to find some old cabinets).

    1. May I recommend the writings of Eric Sloane-who has had a mindset about old structures that is timeless and needs replenishing in our minds constantly-to remind us of our architectural heritage

  12. Hi, do you have a good visual of how to repair/replace mullions on windows.
    In theory I know it can be done but I am a visual learner and need to ‘see’ it.

    Thanks!

    1. Depending on the window a mullion on most historic wood windows is simply a piece of 1×6 trim that is nailed into the sides of the jamb. Very simple and doesn’t affect the structure of the window.

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