Not long ago, I was having breakfast with a reporter from my local daily newspaper, the Laconia Daily Sun. It’s a wonderful small paper published in central New Hampshire. He was preparing a story about my new book, “Roofing Ripoff,” and asked me a fascinating question: “Are new homes built better than older homes?”
Ten minutes later, I still hadn’t finished my answer. It’s a complex question, and the answer requires lots of thought and examples. As I drove home from the interview I thought, “This would make a very good column topic.”
I could probably write a small book about this question, so please understand this tiny column will not do the topic justice. Let’s get started.
You need to break the question down into at least three parts to get to the answer. I maintain that you need to look at the labor aspect, the materials and the overarching economics of the building industry to get at the correct answer.
Let’s start off by saying that years ago you could absolutely find poorly built homes. There were some builders and contractors back then who did bad work, and the houses have since decayed.
I can also take you to downtown Laconia and show you a building right next to the old train station that was originally a home but now serves as our public library. This magnificent stone structure is in excellent condition. It’s almost 150 years old. It was built to last. Great, magnificent homes like this are in abundance in smaller towns and larger cities all over the United States.
It’s probably fair to say the email I receive is a statistically relevant sampling of the problems most homeowners face here in the United States. I get vast amounts of emails from homeowners who suffer from poor workmanship. I’d venture to say that today’s workforce in the residential construction industry, as a whole, is not as concerned about quality as the craftsmen from 150 years ago.
Back then, many workers considered what they did a vocation. They made it a career choice and took pride in what they did. Today, it seems that many workers treat what they do each day as a job. There’s a vast difference between a vocation and a job.
Let’s touch for a moment on materials.
Look at the end of a piece of dimensional lumber, such as a 2 by 10, and note the width of the growth rings of the tree. You may shrug your shoulders. But those of us who have decades of remodeling experience can tell you that the lumber used in older homes was very different from what you can get today.
I have pieces of old lumber taken from buildings built in the late 1800s. The light-colored growth rings that represent the wood added to the tree in the spring of each year are much narrower than those from modern trees.
The percentage of darker bands (summer wood) to lighter bands (spring wood) in older lumber is almost equal. Today, there’s much more spring wood in the hybridized lumber grown by the timber companies. Dark summer wood is stronger and more rot resistant.
The reporter and I talked about plaster. You can take your fingernail and press on a modern wall made from drywall and create a depression. Try it. Forget about doing that to an older plaster wall. A properly mixed plaster with a white lime finish coat has a compressive strength that approaches 3,000 pounds per square inch. In other words, it’s rocklike material, not something similar to cardboard.
I’ve been a master plumber since age 28. While modern PVC drain pipes have many positive qualities, I’ll take cast iron all day long. Cast iron is soundproof, it’s fireproof and it’s much stronger. When you flush a toilet and the water cascades down a cast-iron stack, you don’t hear Niagara Falls in your walls as you do with modern PVC pipe.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There are many modern materials that are far superior to the materials of old. We have better tools today that make us more productive and more accurate. But you need to have them in the hands of the people who are interested in producing the best product.
The overall economic issue is far harder to discuss and digest for us mere mortals who aren’t trained economists. The ever-rising standard of living here in the United States has put intense pressure on trying to keep the labor costs of building in check. Regulations, laws, benefit packages and other things that didn’t exist 100 years ago add to the cost of building. To keep a job affordable, something has to give. You can imagine what that might be.
Fortunately, if you have the budget and the time, you can build a home today that will last for centuries. It doesn’t have to be the Biltmore or some other extreme mansion. There are still some builders and craftsmen who know how to take available high-quality materials and create a home that will be far better than the baseline standard home I see being constructed today.
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