Modern vs bygone home building techniques
May 23, 2010 6:46 PM   Subscribe

Have US home construction techniques improved since the 1920s?

I have heard that the lumber used in modern homes is inferior to what was used in much older homes.

Does a modern home have any construction advantages that make up for the poorer quality in some materials? Do modern power tools provide any advantage in terms of final build quality? Do builders today care more or less than builders of the 1920s? Are the common ways of framing a window or building a wall today superior?

Have techniques, engineering and architecture, building codes, foundations, roofs, or other basics that determine the solidity and durability of a home, improved significantly over the past 90 years?

I'm interested in regular middle-class homes, as opposed to low- or high-end specialty construction. Places built by ordinary builders, using typical techniques from either era. Not interested in plumbing or electrical, just the basics that make a house solid.

What are the big differences in techniques and construction between ordinary houses built today vs 90 years ago?
posted by zippy to Home & Garden (33 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, the obvious answer is that advances in knowledge of earthquakes have increased the effectiveness of earthquake codes.

Aside from that, the prevalence of multistory, fire-resistant urban apartment dwellings also suggests improvements in homebuilding technology over the past 80 years.
posted by dfriedman at 6:57 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd argue we're better off today, assuming the builder is doing it in a way that is up to code and respects the current standards.

Modern homes have better insulation, and are heated/cooled using technology that is much more efficient. Windows are also better insulated and last longer. You don't need storm windows. Exterior doors are made of steel and thus less drafty and easier to lock securely. Electricity is better handled as well. Modern romex-type wiring is arguably safer than knob-and-tube. At the very least much easier to upgrade. I'd argue circuit breakers are an improvement over fuses, although both are equally safe. Galvanized steel plumbing (sometimes lead-soldered) tended to corrode leading to poor water pressure years later. Modern copper and plastic lasts much longer. Sheet rock goes up easier than plaster and lath, and tends to be easier to repair when you accidentally punch a hole in it. It also tends to be smoother and so looks nicer. Poured concrete foundations are less prone to problems than stone and cinder block foundations. Also we do a better job with controlling water around the foundation with things like weeping tile and sump pumps.

That said, like everything else there's a lot of emphasis on speed and cost now, and as a result the possibility of getting a house that is badly made is maybe more likely. But I'd argue that is people who don't stick to best practices, and can happen just as easily in low-end than high-end homes.
posted by drmarcj at 6:59 PM on May 23, 2010

Lots of things have changed. For example the electrical systems of modern house is orders of magnitude better and safer than houses built a long time ago. Likewise houses without insulation and single pane windows were common.

That's not to say that they didn't do some things that weren't great. For example I am standing on a 70+ year old hardwood floor that looks like new. You can certainly buy this floor today but there are lots of cheaper (and inferior) floors so lots of people choose them.
posted by mmascolino at 7:01 PM on May 23, 2010

Another thing, terracotta pipes were commonly used for sewer pipes. They are prone to tree root invasion and collapse. The modern sewer pipe is far superior.
posted by mmascolino at 7:12 PM on May 23, 2010

The materials and process used for plumbing and electrical wiring now are (or can be) much better than in 1920.

Modern insulation is much better.

Modern windows are far superior.

Modern lumber is not inferior; it just isn't as pretty. More knots, things like that. But it doesn't affect the strength of the wood, and since the wood is covered up then the way it looks doesn't matter.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:15 PM on May 23, 2010

Best answer: Almost certainly yes, with a couple of exceptions:

1- Older building methods were very wasteful of lumber. It is going to be a long time before the supply of old-growth species is back to what it was 100 years ago. So it is relatively more expensive to get things like wooden floors with nice long planks, or really nice solid panels in walls.

2- Older building methods were more labor intensive. If you had good craftsmen, you got a better job. Current methods are a bit more plug-n-play and the average quality level is better. A nice plaster wall is probably nicer than drywall, but bad plaster was really bad.

3- Compare apples to apples- the cheapest houses built in the 20's are no longer standing. We only see the good examples of old construction.

4- Current building methods rarely over-build anything.
posted by gjc at 7:25 PM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Some experiences with the construction of a 120 year old workman's house that's been updated many times.

Wood Framing: The older wood is larger and higher quality. 2"x4" are true 2"x4", not 1.5" x 3.5". On the downside, the joist spacing and span covered would be unacceptable today, causing the bow and bounce you generally see in older houses. Newer homes use lower quality wood, but on code-approved spans that make up for the quality. Newer homes are also generally built with electrical / plumbing / hvac in mind, leading to less arbitrary hacking of supporting wood to retrofit them.

In summary: Newer homes use lower-strength wood, but use it better.

Wall covering: Many older homes use lath and plaster. It's much better for sound insulation, but requires more labor to put up. Drywall is generally easier to work with, quicker to put up, and easier to hang things on without holes.

Hardwood floors: Older house, no contest. My house had 16 foot maple floorboards, an equivalent entry level house today would have 3-4' pieces of low quality oak (if it had hardwood floors at all).

Masonry: I'm not a huge expert on this one, but I'm going to give the nod to the older construction. Multi-wythe brick construction is more breathable, handles drainage better, and is (in my opinion) nicer looking than cinderblock construction.

Insulation: New house by a landslide. Poorly constructed new houses can have mold problems, but in general having insulation is much preferable to not having it.

Windows: New house by a landslide. Old single pane windows are dangerous, drafty, and hard to work with.

As an overall summary, I think you have four things going on here:
  • More expensive materials - newer houses at the same price point will have lower quality raw materials (wood, cbu rather than common brick)
  • Better understanding of building codes - this will give you a minimum standard, but you won't see as much overbuilding, since the standard is understood.
  • Better complex materials - no more single pane windows, newspaper insulation, etc.
  • More expensive specialty labor - newer houses will have things like drywall rather than specialty products like plaster or common brick.

posted by true at 7:36 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To reframe your question, and to support gjc, the use of 'poorer materials' is a good thing, it is in fact a positive of modern building standards.

I would expect, though can't confirm, that standards are far more standard these days, and building inspections are more rigorous and common. So a basic house built to code is more likely to exist, there are less jerry-built non-standard houses being made.

In recent years there have been some really interesting new products becoming available, for strength and insulating ability. Just a few examples are MgO boards, pozi-struts, AAC, Insulating Concrete Forms, glulam beams...

You can span a much bigger area more easily with steel beams these days, in a normal house.
posted by wilful at 7:42 PM on May 23, 2010

Best answer: gjc makes some good points, as have some other commentors.

However, I disagree with the statement that modern wood is not inferior; it clearly is. Older homes used woods that simply are not available any more (easily or cheaply, anyway). Clear all heart redwood or cypress were commonly used in homes 100 years ago, and not just for trim. I was just in an old home yesterday morning where the structural members were large (6x8, 6x10) clear all heart Port Orford Cedar. Sure, you could buy this today, but the cost would be very, very high. Consider yourself lucky if you get cabinets or closets lined with cedar or cypress, and that's sure to be a custom feature as well.

Modern homes are structurally equal or superior, but Douglas Fir or Southern Yellow Pine are the primary building materials. Rafters are frequently made from from prefabricated trusses - they are generally pretty damn ugly, and are covered with drywall. They work fine and will last a long time if they are properly protected. That's the key. Older homes with better materials are more resistant to rot and insect damage, but were certainly not as well sealed as modern homes.

Starting in the late 1940's, with the advent of tract housing, there were a lot of really crappy homes built out of cheap materials and poorly put together. There may be some bias about the quality of older homes compared to newer ones, simply because the crappy old ones have been torn down or rebuilt! I live in Southern California, and there are older 1940s-50s era tracts where the houses just plain suck. Fatigue has set in the structural members, roofs and floors sag, and stucco has cracked, over and over, as the structures settle and flex.

I suspect that many of todays tract homes will suffer the same fate as their older cousins.

I can't be certain of this, but industry conventional wisdom holds that drywall (gypsum board) these days is not as good as the sheet rock of old either. I have lived in older homes where it was damn near impossible to drive a nail into the sheet rock. Drywall these days, it's pretty easy to put your hand through it (if you don't hit a stud). Nails can't be used to support anything with a decent load on it, the drywall just won't hold up. Hence the wide availability of drywall anchors.

Things that are clearly superior now: plastic pipe; electrical systems; HVAC; windows; insulation; certain roofing materials. I don't include copper pipe - copper will develop pinholes over time, even in areas that aren't subject to any sort of stress or flex. I despise copper pipe, although it is beautiful.

I guess it really comes down to the quality of materials and craftsmanship used at the time of the construction. A well built old house is better than an "adequately" built new one. A well built new home should be at least as good or better than anything built in the past.

One more item, food for thought. I don't consider much of anything built anymore to be "permanent". It's all temporary. It may be built to last 100 years, but in the life of a building, that's really not all that long - and most new buildings aren't really made to last 100 years.
posted by Xoebe at 8:02 PM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

We are having a new house built and every week or so we go in there and have a look around. It's fascinating. A friend of a friend who is a contractor is impressed with the way the house is being put together - 2x6s for the exterior walls, for example, where code calls for 2x4. The extra two inches of insulation results in better soundproofing as well as better heat retention. There are little details in the flashing over the windows that will keep water out and prevent mold from growing.

I was a little surprised to see that the plumbing isn't copper, but plastic; that used to be a bad thing when you were talking PVC, but the newer plastic, HDPE, is actually superior to copper in many ways and is rated to last 50-100 years.

Tankless water heaters are also a relatively new innovation. If you live in an area where they are viable, having unlimited hot water is apparently very convenient. They use much less energy than the tank kind, too.

Your 80-year-old houses will probably not have Cat5 Ethernet in each room, either, nor a media panel that ties together all the cable, phone, and network connections.

There did seem to be a period in the '80s-'90s where a lot of builders were making seemingly disposable houses, and I'm sure the lowest-price new construction is still a bit sketchy, but I am confident that a lot of the houses being built today will stand the test of time. The main differences between an expensive house and a cheap house are the size, the floor plan, and the finishing.
posted by kindall at 8:04 PM on May 23, 2010

Best answer: A note of disagreement with true (in spite of disagreeing with someone by that name).2X4 were never really 2X4, that measurement always referred to the size of the milled timber (at the time it was cut from the logs), and not the dried lumber. "In the good old days" the timber was dried out doors, even once kilns become common everyone was different and the controls limited. Therefore each batch was different. Now days there is a universal standard, and when you buy a 2X4 you know for sure that it will be 1 and a half by three and a half. still a pain for people like me that try to build and design things once a decade, but better than having mixed sizes.

This is one of the improvements, of course. The biggest help is to the carpenters and in how quickly things can be built (in away, it diminishes the skill needed, I guess, but the result is really better than having to shave each piece to get a match.). Also much of the lumber used in framing was untreated white pine, at least until you got far north it was. What is used today should last longer. Of course, when people say old wood is better, they are thinking about what was premium than, and that super stuff may have been a bit easier to get than it is now. Or they are thinking of old weathered wood -- but there you're dealing with the parts that didn't crack and warp thirty or fifty years ago, and some of those slate, beams and clapboards did.

Of course, the standardization has bad results too. Just try to get a wall that isn't a multiple of 8, 12, or 16 feet (the standard lengths of boards, contractors don't want to deal with it.

So add standards of lumber to the better material (and planing) for wiring, plumbing and insulation -- on average we are better off, (but each building is more standardized.)
posted by Some1 at 8:05 PM on May 23, 2010

The first building code wasn't adopted in the U.S. until 1927, so modern construction is generally going to be better, with some exceptions for shoddy construction now vs. exceptional construction from back then.

My apartment is in a building that's close to 100 years old, and I'm lucky if I have an outlet in a given room, much less a grounded one.
posted by LionIndex at 8:44 PM on May 23, 2010

Best answer: There was a house down the street that got torn down to make room for a new house. At first I was all "aw, too bad the nice old house will be replaced by a crappy new one" -- until they started ripping down the walls and I saw the construction. It was probably built in the 1930s or so, and calling the construction "minimal" is an insult to the word. We are talking 2x4 floor joists on wide spacings, irregular and very wide stud spacings, no fire blocking, and tiny, tiny nails holding on the plank sheathing/siding (making the house very much not rigid, as well as having lots of gaps for cold air to flow through). The lumber was so-so -- not the lovely solid wood used in high-end construction of old. And of course there was no insulation or vapor barrier, anything like that.

I'd take a generic, low-end house of today over that house any day of the week. With caveats, I think that the safety of construction has only gotten better -- I'm thinking all the things covered by code, including fire, earthquake, hurricane, snow load, etc. The caveats mostly have to do with moisture. Modern houses are more air-tight, and so get moldy in ways that old houses didn't. And some modern materials (like drywall, osb, laminate flooring, and wall to wall carpeting) are totally ruined by flooding; materials like solid wood, brick, and stone can survive brief inundation without major damage -- this was a major issue post-Katrina, for example, with anything modern needing a lot more repair than older buildings.

Building codes can be a real pain in the ass when you are trying to do the owner/builder thing, but the underlying basis is usually really good. All the rules about egress windows, or requirements for tempered glass where a kid might run into it, are based on hard experiences with the shortcomings of old construction and design.
posted by Forktine at 9:04 PM on May 23, 2010

One thing that perhaps the US could do for a ready improvement from here would be to go metric...

Another improvement, in Australian standards at least, and presumably for US as well, is the use of concrete footings, be they stumps or slab, instead of less durable timber.

Our old house has a hardwood frame. Which may seem to be a good thing, more durable, but really it's just a pain in the arse. The fully dried timber is impenetrable to nails and other fixings. Much rather work with pinus.
posted by wilful at 9:37 PM on May 23, 2010

Best answer: I've watched nearby middle-class entry-level "cottages" (c. $200k, 900ish sq. ft.) go up over the past few months: they start with a concrete slab foundation; stud-frame walls and roof timbers go up in a long day's work; next, vinyl siding in equally quick fashion and shingle roofs; but the glazing and interior, including plumbing, wiring and HVAC, clearly takes the lion's share of the work. That's keeping with the idea that if you were buying a house in 1920, you were mainly paying for the timber and the labour assembling it. Nowadays, the walls and floors and ceilings (and roofs) are a much smaller proportion of the total cost, and the post-Levittown approach of building from easily-duplicable plans has sped that process along, through economies of scale and a honing-down of construction techniques.

Sheet rock goes up easier than plaster and lath, and tends to be easier to repair when you accidentally punch a hole in it.

Though that's partly on account of drywall being much easier to punch holes in. Hate hate hate it, and lath-and-plaster can more than match in smoothness when done properly, except that you probably can't find a time-served plasterer in your city. Or state. Which points to an important difference that gjc mentions: the core of your average still-standing 1920 house is much more a reflection of the tradesmen who built it than the average 2010 house, for good or bad, and a number of old-school building trades -- plastering, bricklaying, roof tiling -- are now increasingly high-end, even in areas where clay was more plentiful than wood, and brick was long the material of choice.

A final point: people move frequently enough now that hundred-year elements like a slate or tile roof doesn't make economic sense when asphalt shingle does the job for the time you're there, and modern roofs built for shingle might not even support the weight of a retrofit. Builders aren't
posted by holgate at 9:38 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: While this largely repeats what's been said above, you can boil it down to this: in terms of infrastructure like plumbing, wiring, and insulation, today's construction is far better. In terms of durability, the surviving houses from the 20's are better than what you see today, but that's partly because the shacks fell down fifty years ago.

My own house was built in 1885, along with its carriage house. Parts were added in the 40's, and while they're good, they're inferior to the original construction - not far inferior, and they're more convenient in many ways (it's possible to add a new outlet in a frame wall), but I'm astounded by the secure feeling I get from the original rock-solid construction. Sort of the notion that whatever I do to it, it's seen worse already. I like it.

Paint is far, far better now than it was then, as long as you spend the money on good paint. Primers are better to an incredible extent. Chemicals in general are better. Roofing materials are better, although the timber in my roof could be used to build at least one lesser house all by itself.

Mortar is better - vinyl additives increase strength and flexibility. Weatherproofing coatings are infinitely better because they now exist at all.

Reinforced concrete foundations are way better than limestone or cinderblock in your basement.

Plaster is better - and if you like drywall (I prefer plaster when I can get away with it), today's drywall is far better than anything available even in the recent past. (Non-organic drywall won't even mold nowadays if it should get wet.)

Sweated copper pipe, I have to say, is stronger than the plastics usually used today. I don't know when that started being used; I have a little bit of it in a bathroom that was installed in 1946, but I have reason to believe it was a later addition. I had a lot of sweated copper in a house I used to have, built in 1972, so I suspect it wasn't in much use in the 1920's. On the other hand, plastic is so damn easy you can argue it's a better technology, as long as you're careful to support it well so it can have a good service life.

Wiring - hahaha. Way better now. Not even comparable. But you already knew that.

Internet connectivity in today's houses is also a lot better than they had in 1920 for some reason.
posted by Michael Roberts at 10:17 PM on May 23, 2010

Best answer: design was definitely better back then, particularly w/r/t the environment. for example, my so. california house built in 1905, with no insulation to speak of, is always pleasantly cool, even in the hottest of summers, and warm in all but the coldest few weeks of winter. and that's without any air conditioning and one small heater in the liv. room (that we really only use in those few cold weeks in january)
What is this magic? there's a really big, old tree (older than the house) on the south side (where the sun is) and the biggest expanse of black roof faces that way. In the summer, the tree shades the south side of the house, and since the sun can't fall on both the east and west sides, there's always a temperature differential driving the wind. Leave the back window and the front door open, catch a nice breeze, and the temperature rarely goes over 75 even when it's over 100 outside (it's a desert here, so it cools off at the time the house heats up, the sun is going down, close the doors and it's warm all night). In the winter, the leaves fall off the tree and the sun heats the roof and then a lack of insulation is really a blessing. break out an extra blanket and it's never uncomfortable. Plus (four-bedroom house) we are saving THOUSANDS of dollars a year.
none of this happened by accident.

nowadays, houses are designed by computers, often by people who have never set foot on the lot (yes, i'm talking to you, McMansions of the last decade). lots are cleared of trees before construction even begins, houses face any which way, and it's all central heat and air...totally unsustainable. i think the main difference is that modern homes live in a cheap-oil-based denial that the environment even exists or (horror of horrors) might even be pleasant or desirable. of course, again, i live in southern california, YMMV...i certainly wouldn't want to live in chicago without a lot bigger heater, and more insulation.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:17 PM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

sexyrobot, you're certainly right, "YMMV". Passive solar design back then was neither rarer nor more common than these days. It may be easier and more bearable to get by without decent passive solar design these days due to efficiency standards, but it's nonsense to say that modern urban forms don't allow for it.

In my state, it's regulated, in fact.
posted by wilful at 10:35 PM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: There are a lot of good answers here. I've personally experienced the excellent use of on-site trees for old homes - grew up in a house with a big maple that kept the house in shade and cool in summer, but without leaves let plenty of sun through in winter. When we cut that tree down, the house became an oven in summer, and my family then put in central AC (I miss that tree, but a new one is growing in its place).

The points above about families rarely staying in the same home now also support the notion of using less permanent roofs. I don't know if slate or tile were common in the 1920s, but I know slate lasts forever, and it would be hard to find a homeowner who would go with that cost in new home construction, unless they expected the next three generations to live in the home as well, so they could them amortize the expense over a century.

There have been a few comments so far about framing and also code that tie together. Code seems to have led to more rational and consistent walls and floors, with less of a bouncy floor trampoline effect in new homes vs some old ones.

I've worked in a minor capacity on the construction of two or three homes in the late 80s, and at that point in time, aside from the bricklayer I met, none of the tradespeople seemed focused on craft. They wanted to get the job right, up to a point, but weren't personally invested in their work. Framing was not a desirable or prestigious job, and sheetrocking and flooring seemed to be done to maximize speed of deployment rather than any long-term durability. Not to say those floors wouldn't be durable, but I doubt the company or its workers would be around to complain to a decade or two down the road (and would the then-owners of the home even know who to blame?)

If anyone has knowledge, I'd be interested in the improvements in wood joining techniques (if this is the right term). How were beams and walls put together then vs now? I know there are some nice steel thingamabobs that now provide for strong and simple connections between structural pieces of wood. Have those transformed construction in a positive way? Are there other examples of the superiority or inferiority of how the pieces of wood are put together now?
posted by zippy at 10:42 PM on May 23, 2010

Bloody preview. Was going to say: Builders aren't likely to be around for generations in the same way either.

sexyrobot makes a good point that the quirks of older construction that reflect terrain and climate have largely been smoothed out by CAD plans and HVAC. One analogy that comes to mind is wine: New World techniques applied worldwide by roving winemakers have raised the quality of the average $10 bottle from the days of Blue Nun, but have also created lots of relatively charmless wines.

Now, 'charm' and 'character' are subjective, and sometimes used to excuse shabbiness, but while house-hunting I saw some ridiculous examples of new build: beneath older cabin-style homes on steep-sloped lots, a flattened-out, clearcut patch of tall, skinny two-storey McMansions. They were probably fine and solid, construction-wise, but whoever chose to build in that style in that location was just cheap and greedy, and whoever lived there would likely end up miserable.
posted by holgate at 10:53 PM on May 23, 2010

Best answer: zippy, I suspect you've fallen for a rose-coloured view of craftsmen from our long-lost past. I don't really think that builders in "thee olden dayes" were all about lovingly mastercrafting pieces for their beauty. They all had mortgages and bills to pay as well, and time has been a pressure for any businessman since they were building the pyramids. There are only limited writings about working class trades back then, but the book I'm thinking of (can't recall it's title) talks about cutting corners wherever they can.

Regarding fastenings, yes absolutely. Check out a posi-strut, or MiTek connectors. Sure beats a hammer and nails. Glues of course are not comparable either - it certainly makes it easier for relatively shonky rushed and cheap work to be strong.
posted by wilful at 11:07 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Really amazing answers.

One of my favorite books is House written by Pulitzer prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. It's a true story of the building of a house in Massachusetts in the 1980s. It's a book of astonishing richness, and is a trove of information on exactly the kinds of questions posed here.

Relevant to this discussion is the amazing amazing background information he provides as to how and why building techniques and materials have evolved and changed over the last century- really quite fascinating. But he book is not dry or scholarly- it reads like a novel. It's written from the perspectives of all of the main players: the builders, the architect, and the family building the house. The access which the author had to the builders (and other main players) of the house was extensive. One imagines he was an omnipresent fly on the wall. What comes out is an astonishing account of (among other things) the builders and their daily life, their techniques and motivations, how they earn a living, their aches and pains, psychology and homelife- and how this all ties with with: wood, strength, support, shelter, nails, plumbing, paint; also kharma, sweat, pain, and everything that goes into making of a home for a family that will stand for hundreds of years. Absolutely fascinating read - can't recommend it more.

Incidentally, one of the main figures in the book, the builder Jim Locke, later wrote his own book on housebuilding, The Well-Built House, more technical in nature, about what you need to know when building a home. I haven't read this book, but Jim Locke is a friend and I can say that he is one of the smartest and most engaging people I know. Bet it's pretty good.

Hope this is helpful. Great question.
posted by MacChimpman at 2:53 AM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some1: .2X4 were never really 2X4, that measurement always referred to the size of the milled timber... the timber was dried out doors... Therefore each batch was different.

Sorry, wrong. Varying the drying rates does not make for varying sizes of dried lumber, so long as it all ends up at the same moisture content. Dimensional standards have indeed changed over the decades, with the standard dimensions getting smaller over time.

From the summary of this 1964 U.S. Forest Service paper:

Lumber size standards came into being almost a century ago to meet the need for a common understanding between the mill and markets that were separated by increasing distances of rail or water transportation. Early concepts called for rough lumber to be of full nominal size, often in the dry condition. After World War I, the increasing demand for construction lumber led to the first national size standard in 1924. This was revised in 1926, 1928, 1939, and 1953, while still another revision is proposed for adoption in 1964.


It would help, Zippy, to narrow your question by being more specific about what you mean by 'superior' or 'inferior.' Are you thinking in terms of sheer mechanical strength? Speed? Economy? The relative skill levels needed to put things together? Aesthetic elegance? They don't all necessarily go together.

none of the tradespeople seemed focused on craft. They wanted to get the job right, up to a point, but weren't personally invested in their work. Framing was not a desirable or prestigious job, and sheetrocking and flooring seemed to be done to maximize speed of deployment rather than any long-term durability.

Consider that it's tough tough to be personally invested when the whole structure of the industry is designed to take creative control away from such tradesmen. Workers who do framing and sheathing and roofing and sheetrock and flooring are primarily judged on their speed while adhering to known standards. Saying that a particular tradesman has a tendency to "get creative" is now derogatory.
posted by jon1270 at 3:04 AM on May 24, 2010

Best answer: The structure of houses has changed even over the past few decades. Here's a Wikipedia article on framing which gives a good overview on the difference between the older balloon framing used in the USA until the 1950s, and the platform framing which is more common today.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:24 AM on May 24, 2010

To hear my brother talk (who works in new-home construction on the crew that comes into a new development to fix the mistakes the original build crews make), new homes are built like crap today. Tossed-together as quickly and with as little care for accuracy as possible. Git r dun!

That said, I'm sure the "techniques" used today are more advanced than those of bygone eras. Power tools, for instance, have revolutionized home building, as has advances in adhesives and other materials.

Of course, there's the question of how you define "advanced". Today's techniques are certainly far more advanced in terms of efficiency and speed. On the other hand, I'd certainly argue that today's homes are in no way as solid as homes built even 50 years ago.

We will, for sake of discussion, discount mega-million-dollar custom homes. I'm speaking of your average middle-class tract home.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:53 AM on May 24, 2010

none of the tradespeople seemed focused on craft. They wanted to get the job right, up to a point, but weren't personally invested in their work. Framing was not a desirable or prestigious job, and sheetrocking and flooring seemed to be done to maximize speed of deployment rather than any long-term durability.

I'd submit that this differs little from the way people in other lines of work approach their day-to-day grind. Few jobs today, from your tradesmen to your average office cube-dweller, feel "personally invested" in their work. Simply put, experience has taught them that getting invested in the way you seem to expect simply does not pan-out for them in any positive manner. Speed and attention to the bottom line have pretty much eliminated craftsmanship from the equation. It's just a job.

Unless you are willing to shell-out a few million bucks and oversee the build yourself. And, even then, the builders are going to cut as many invisible corners as possible, in order to protect that bottom line.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:05 AM on May 24, 2010

Response by poster: zippy, I suspect you've fallen for a rose-coloured view of craftsmen from our long-lost past.

Quite possibly, and I'd love to read more about how it really was. I read Kidder's House and I suspect those builders were much more into their craft than the typical house-building crew of days past. The guy who built fences all day was probably known as "Joe the fencebuilder," but I don't see that (perhaps overly nostalgic and incorrect) identification among modern carpenters (as opposed to specialists who do things like cabinetry).

I know the craftspeople in the 20s had to put food on the table, but I also know that they tended to be local, and in some communities were more than likely to know the initial occupants of the home. I also suspect that they had much more input on the design and construction of the home than today, where builders work from detailed plans where deviation is a defect.

As you go further back in the US, the initial occupants may have been some of the builders of the home. So whether or not they were invested in their trade, they certainly had more of a connection to the thing being built. And I wonder whether that could have led to superior building techniques compared to what we have now.

Someone else asked me to define more clearly what I'm looking for. It is: do modern building techniques make for stronger and more durable homes than old building techniques, despite the (debated?) belief that old lumber is superior to what is common now?

But I am really enjoying this discussion and all the directions it is taking.
posted by zippy at 9:21 AM on May 24, 2010

Response by poster: Are you thinking in terms of sheer mechanical strength? Speed? Economy?

Mechanical strength and durability due to improved (or worsened) techniques of construction and use of commonly available materials of the day. How well will the home hold up, resist cracking, only require ordinary maintenance?
posted by zippy at 9:40 AM on May 24, 2010

"I read Kidder's House and I suspect those builders were much more into their craft than the typical house-building crew of days past. "

I think you're exactly right. I can't speak about a comparison to crews past, but at the time the book was written, I think you're right on-- they cared much more about good craftsmanship and building quality than most other contractors. I think then, as well as today, they prefer to occupy that place in the market- which is to say that they only care to build quality, and if you don't want to pay their price, they'll pass on the job rather than compromise their standards. Actually, I believe this is not a choice on their part. I would guess they're incapable of building crap even if they were paid handsomely for it.

These days, I imagine their good reputation allows them to occupy that niche in the market. Back in the 80's however, when the book was written, you may remember that their insistence on not compromising their standards in various disputed sections of that house came right out of their profits. Granted this was an somewhat unusual job, with a lot of extra drama: an overworked inexperienced architect delivering drawings at the absolute last second, and a family with young kids who absolutely could not afford to comprimise when it came to cost overruns. Of course, all of these stressors are part of what makes the book so interesting. Nevertheless, when you're trying to build a business, put kids through college and keep up with your mortgage, you obviously can't be trimming your profits.
posted by MacChimpman at 2:36 PM on May 24, 2010

Best answer: "Do modern building techniques make for stronger and more durable homes than old building techniques, despite the (debated?) belief that old lumber is superior to what is common now?"

Very interesting question.

My gut feeling is that technological and economic advancement would neccessitate that you rephrase the question.

Let us start with condeding that answer is technically "No, modern building tecniques are not stronger nor more durable compared with older ones." But the analysis needs to have adjustments for technological advancements in cost and speed of replacement.

Asphalt roofs seem to be a perfect example. Let us stipulate that they are nowehere near as durable nor strong as slate or cedar shakes. That answers your question right there- slate can last 200 years I think. But the cost of asphalt is low enough, it's performance good enough, and the cost / ease of replacing it every 20 years low enough, that it's by far the most popular strategy.

Another way of looking at it: although not as durable as slate, what penalty is there for using a technology which works as well at a fraction of the cost, and causes very few (if any) headaches, financial or logistical to replace every 20 years? In other words, if it can be replaced in a day (which you might not even notice) for a low cost (that you might not even notice in the economic scheme of house contruction and maintenance costs), it's as if the technology didn't even fail. In other words, an asphalt roof has the same performance and lifespan as a slate roof as long as you take a short vacation once every 20 years, and pay x thousand for replacement costs. That way, you won't even notice it has been replaced.

Another way of looking at it: Does it make sense to buy a new Rolls Royce which will cost you a huge down payment and $2000 per month? Or to lease a new Mercedes every 2 years at $400 a month?

The answer to all of this has to do with, for lack of a better term: Soul. Not to get mystical about it- But I personally would imagine there's nothing like having a slate roof, or driving a Rolls. With the passage of time, modern technologies and economics have conspired to undermine the cost of the ownership of quality, and change the values of what has been considered "luxury", "premium", and "economy". Probably as well, new modes of cost analysis have crept in over the years which further undermine the asking of the question, things like "environmental cost" and "disposal cost" were never in the cards back in the old days.

In the meantime, we all put asphalt shingles on our roof.
posted by MacChimpman at 4:02 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: MacChimpman, that's an excellent point about roofing. Asphalt allows the owner a sort of 'pay as you go' model. I am interested in the related question as 'can we build affordable houses that last a century without major maintenance.'

Another way to say this would be: did 1920s homes have more of the cost up-front, where today's have more ongoing maintenance in order to remain standing?'

Essentially, durability suggests that how we pay for a house has changes, and if so, how. The roofing example is great.

And for what it's worth, I think few 1920s homes had slate roofs. Where I grew up, I suspect the roofs were wooden shingle colonials. Where I am now, the 1920s homes often have terra-cotta tile, while newer homes have that horrible flat roof with sealant and gravel thing going instead (flat roofs? Madness!)
posted by zippy at 4:53 PM on May 24, 2010

Best answer: Asphalt allows the owner a sort of 'pay as you go' model.

I would say that this is related to the spread of home ownership down the income spectrum. Initially it was a cause, but as it became clear that it was a viable business model, it became a goal of home building to further decrease the up-front costs of home ownership. Everything from the way the house is built to where it is located to how it is financed reflects this goal.
posted by kindall at 5:05 PM on May 24, 2010

"Sheet rock goes up easier than plaster and lath, and tends to be easier to repair when you accidentally punch a hole in it. It also tends to be smoother and so looks nicer."

As others have said, this is debatable -- the plaster in our house is equivalent in smoothness to drywall, and it's amazingly sound-proof. You don't generally accidentally punch holes in it the way you do with drywall; it's tougher stuff. Though it's true that repair takes some skill, and plasterers are scarce these days. I would never replace our walls with drywall, though.

Speaking of passive solar heating that someone mentioned above -- many of the bungalows built in our area 100 years ago had very wide eaves. This means that during the summer, when the sun is high in the sky overhead, the the eaves shade the house, and it stays cool. During the winter, when days are short and the sun stays low in the sky to the south, it is low enough to shine through the windows under the eaves, and it keeps the house warmer. I don't know if modern houses tend to take such things into consideration or not.

Our house is 99 years old and the floors don't even creak, despite having been through several big earthquakes in the last century. I wouldn't swap it for a new house -- even most nice and expensive new houses feel flimsy to me in comparison.
posted by litlnemo at 1:46 AM on May 25, 2010

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