LARGE LAWNS AND SMALL MINDS

Thomas Frank's latest is on the post-Great Recession resurgence of the McMansion. After falling briefly in 2009, the average square footage of new home construction in the U.S. has resumed its inexorable growth. It's a surprisingly bland offering from Frank, telling us little that we didn't already know. With no judgment – because god knows I've been there – it comes off as a piece one writes when unable to think of a topic on a deadline.

The main point is that new home construction is a kind of monument to American vacuousness, as our society place great value on living not only in large homes but in large homes of the dumbest and most ostentatious kind. One thing I think Frank misses, or misses a chance to emphasize, is that the Babbitt class has always valued size as a means of displaying wealth. This is not a new phenomenon. There are plenty of differences, though, between the Big Houses of yesterday and of today. The real issue is a little more subtle than his approach suggests.

I live in a home built in 1907. In fact the entire neighborhood consists of homes built between 1880 and 1910 (which, I believe, was the last time anything good happened to this city). To illustrate a few points, I wandered around with my camera for about a half hour on Sunday afternoon. Suffice it to say the homes here are not small. They border on giant. And these were homes occupied by bank managers, dentists, realtors…precisely the kind of new money middle class that flocks to McMansions today.

Single Home

It's not only big, it's adorned with a lot of the same gaudy ornamentation that characterizes today's suburban tract palaces. The nouveau riche of today appear to be startlingly similar to those of the turn of the 20th Century. That said, there are a number of respects in which I think Frank has a point that he didn't do enough to make.

1. Much of the difference can be seen in the quality of construction. The Middle Class Manses of 1900 were built like brick shithouses. That they are all still standing in cities all over the Midwest, despite having received minimal upkeep for decades or in some cases being outright abandoned for some time, is a testament to how they were constructed. The homes around here certainly look worse for wear, but they are structurally sound. McMansions, despite their enormous size and matching price tags, absolutely reek of cheapness. As Frank says, they are meant to be "flipped" in ten years. They are just enormous piles of pressed board, plain white paint, plain carpeting, and hollow doors set on flimsy Chinese hinges. With the possible exception of the de rigueur stone countertops in the kitchen, nothing in these homes is designed to last 30 years let alone 100. If you've been in one, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's hard to reconcile their high prices with the feeling that it's just a gigantic version of that duplex you rented for a year in college.

2. The old homes, despite being equally prone to show-off ornamentation, had an architectural style. It might not be one that many of us find pleasing or tasteful, but it was a style. McMansions, on the other hand, are stylistically illiterate collages of generations of tacky details: turrets, bay windows, cornices, gables, columns, dormers, chimneys, ornamental brickwork…you name it and the lowest bid contractor will slap it on the flimsy exterior. McMansions are the Michael Bay movies of architecture.

3. While the older homes were very large, they held larger families with more children. In the case of wealthier parts of society around 1900, there was domestic staff around the house as well. The size of the older homes had a functional purpose.

4. The older homes were vertically oriented and fit closely together. Here are a couple of (not great) pictures I snapped to try to illustrate the point. Note that all of the houses in both pictures are, by any definition, exceptionally large. Click to embiggen:


Row 1
Row 2

In the first picture in particular you can see that you can reach out a side window and high-five your neighbor in these houses. And here is where I think Frank really misses an important point. The McMansion is not merely stupid, big, and stupid-big, it is purposely designed to waste space. They're two stories to project size, but primarily horizontally oriented – in layman's terms, they sprawl idiotically in every direction. They sit on lots designed not only to set them back from the street but also to keep them a safe distance away from the neighbors. If they don't have moats it is only because zoning boards won't allow it.

5. Finally, the laughable sameness of today's megahomes represents a change. Turn-of-the-Century construction shows that buyers and developers at least bothered to hire a few different architects, build more than three floorplans per development, and paint the exteriors something other than white.

Anywhere in the declining Midwest you can get these old homes for a song. There are no longer enough well-to-do people here – actually, there just aren't enough people, full stop – to support the value of old homes in the city along with the new construction out in the suburbs. They're not always pretty on account of age and neglect, but they have what the cool kids call Charm. Charm is a way of saying that, unlike most of what is built today, every home does not look identical. They are made of actual building materials instead of compressed granite dust, plywood, and bricks you can crush with your hand. If the bankers' homes of 1900 were the expression of the stupidity of the era like McMansions are of today, then the inescapable conclusion is that American stupidity has gotten much more potent in the intervening decades.

49 thoughts on “LARGE LAWNS AND SMALL MINDS”

  • Cue: the relation between lot size and house square footage, and the advents of transportation means and costs, from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries.
    Discuss.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    About 60 people went Friday evening to take in the unbelievable cherry blossoms of 1200 trees in rich suburb of DC. None of the houses seems to cost less than $10M. Except a handful, all houses were enormous in size, lacking any aesthetic value and probably dating back to about the middle of the 20th century.

    May be size is everything.

  • There is a little survivorship bias here. We don't see crappy buildings made in 1900 because they fell down a long time ago. But I have no difficulty believing that general construction standards were much higher then.

    Instead of huge crappy homes, the UK has tiny crappy homes, which are just as bad. The causes include a price boom; cost-cutting and profiteering on the part of developers; feeble regulations; relatively limited supplies of open land; and hysteria to buy a place at all costs which is in turn fuelled by a broken rental market. The result is a plague of incredibly cramped (and cheaply built) apartments and "maisonettes" without space to swing a hamster let alone a cat. It occurs in all major cities but is particularly severe within commuting distance of London.

  • It's amazing to me that quality of construction has actually decreased over time. Somehow it's the one area of technology where we said "nope, not going to make any progress here!"

    One of my favorite things is when I find out that the owner of the building company that tossed up a particular development actually built himself a house in that development. Inevitably, it is the gaudiest, tackiest, most gauche and tasteless house for miles around – usually with tons of fake Italian "features", like cartoon versions of Roman columns and so forth.

    I have a friend who bought a giant McMansion recently, and I just can't wrap my head around it. Two-and-a-half-story great room? Oh, perfect!…for when you need to test your prototype mini-Predator drone, I guess… Seriously, it doesn't matter how much furniture you cram in there, it'll never feel "furnished". It's just this giant, randomly-shaped space. Like living in a big cave full of drywall.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    "It's amazing to me that quality of construction has actually decreased over time."

    Quality of EVERYTHING has declined over time other than appliances and automobiles. A pair of pants, a dresser, a house; wages no longer support the kind of expense necessary to produce something of lasting value. Once everything became cheap crap, employers could only pay us enough to afford cheap crap without reducing our nominal standard of living.

  • @HoosierPoli: Not so. The price of, say, a pair of Levi's is a lot lower now than 50 years ago. You get an inferior product made by enslaved children in Bangladesh, but at least it's cheap. Houses, on the other hand, have become much more expensive.

    This is really a failure of regulation. Developers build crappy homes because they can get away with it. People buy crappy homes because that's what is available.

    It doesn't have to be this way. Germany had to replace a lot of its housing stock after 1945, for obvious reasons. At least in the West, they built spacious (but not absurdly huge), solidly constructed homes that are actually pleasant to live in. But it didn't happen through the magic of the free market, it required (gasp, shock, horror) government planning.

  • Major Kong; I live in a 1300-square-foot "starter" hovel cleverly disguised as a single family home. It was built in 1990, and we've already had to replace the siding, the windows, all the floors, and the appliances. Ed was right that these things are built with the idea that you flip them in 10 years. My BIL lives in a 7-bedroom Victorian (built in 1898–not a typo) in very-upstate (as in, "Wave to Canada, they're right over there!") NY. His basement steps are actually a huge chunk of rock that was carved into steps. The home itself has all the niceties that Ed described above about older homes, and sits on a street with other similar homes that all look different because they weren't built in a week to the same floorplan. Sadly upstate NY has the same problem as the midwest–no jobs, no people. But the homes are glorious.

  • Oh, P.S. How could I forget–also replaced the roof and sliding glass door in the kitchen. Because these homes were built from wet tissue paper.

  • I used to work as an inspector for construction companies and on one occasion, for the concrete company itself. Many of the projects were massive neighborhoods of "Mcmansions." When your job is to test concrete, it's disheartening to see the concrete crew foreman immediately demand 40gal(we'd consider this a lot) of water in the mix as soon as the truck arrives to pour the main foundation slab. What comes down the shoot is a thin soup, almost a concrete gruel, if you will. I can't help but wonder if these kinds of places have frequent foundation problems. My mother bought a similar house, purchased before it was finished, and it had all sorts of problems from the toilets to the garage door.

  • In Rhode Island, when we were hunting for a house to buy the cut-off seemed to be in the mid-1970s. Not every house before 1970 was built great, but most were, and every one built after seemed to be constructed shoddily of crap materials. We settled on a little Cape Cod that the owner had built in 1950, and which he expected to last forever. Keep it painted, don't burn it down, poison the carpenter ants once in a while, and it probably will.

  • Freeportguy says:

    What always amazes me is how the way those houses are designed doesn't allow for easy maintenance indoor or outdoor. Bad enough that changing light bulbs can be an adventure, and people will think twice before repainting…

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "There's an awful lot of wasted space in these McMansions.

    They seem to be big just for the sake of being big."

    Major,
    I beg to differ.
    They're built for people who have some fair amount of money.
    And with that money, comes not only caution, but sometimes paranoia.

    They're set back from the streets, and are wide open on the inside, because the people who own them are afraid of, or don't like, others.

    And not just the others on the outside, but the ones on the inside.
    The wife and hubby don't want to spend too much time with one another – or with the kids – and likewise, the kids don't want to spend too much time with their parents, or one another for that matter.

    Imo – These homes are spacious, because most of the people who own them have issues with intimacy and empathy.
    Spacious walk-in closets for the Mrs., and big rooms for the kids, substitute space and faux-opulence, to make up for the lack of love, intimacy, and empathy.

    Of course, I could be wrong – it wouldn't be the first time.
    But I knew a lot of these kinds of families in NC, when I lived in Chapel Hill for 4 years.
    They were the friends of my best friends, who didn't build a McMansion, but instead a nice, homey, large home. Not too large, and not too small. More like Goldilocks, than reeking of new-found gold.

    If you want some fictional accounts of what I'm talking about, everyone, read some books by John Updike.

  • "@HoosierPoli: Not so. The price of, say, a pair of Levi's is a lot lower now than 50 years ago."

    Levi's 501's were on sale at JC Penney's one day a few weeks back. There were north of $40/pr. When I was 14–fifty years ago–Levi's were not sold at Penney's (Brandeis& Boston Bros., next door to Penney's did sell them) but I bought the Foremost brand that they did sell–for $3.75 BECAUSE the Levi's were $4.50. And my dad's "loaded" Olds Delta 88 Holiday was something like $4G.

    I'm refurbishing a home built around 1900, it's about 1,600 sf, net. . The sills, main carrying sticks, floors, floor frames, exterior walls, roof and roof framing are all that's left. I carted out six tons of lath and plaster–and that was after the former owner had gutted 75% of the building and replaced most of the windows with vinyl (they're not great but they'll do for now). I've rebuilt all of the interior walls and reframed the entire exterior wall system from the inside to allow for minimum R-19 insulation. This house was NOT that well built and since I've done all of the work myself and have some physical issues it's not gonna win any house beautiful awards; otoh, it's livable and much more solidly built than anything that's being built anywhere that I've lived in the last 35 years–at a cost of about $30/sf (let's not start talking about "sweat equity").

  • @democommie

    Inflation is a powerful thing. $4.50 in 1964 has the same purchasing power as $34 in 2014, and $34 isn't too far off the price of a pair of low-to-mid-market jeans today.

    $4,000 in 1964 has the same purchasing power as about $30,000 today, and you can get a damn nice, loaded 2014 sedan for $30,000. Plus, the sedan you buy today probably won't kill you if you get in a minor accident, and it has nice things like cruise control, GPS navigation, satellite radio, and bluetooth.

    Houses are one thing – I just sold a house built in 1998 and bought a house built in 1960, and the quality of construction is markedly different. But most consumer products have gotten better at the same price, or have gotten far cheaper.

  • I agree with almost everything you say here, but I'm gonna take issue with one point:

    The old homes, despite being equally prone to show-off ornamentation, had an architectural style. It might not be one that many of us find pleasing or tasteful, but it was a style. McMansions, on the other hand, are stylistically illiterate collages of generations of tacky details

    Yeah, uh, no. You're giving the benefit of the doubt to older buildings because they're old. Most old houses of the type you're describing (Midwestern, built by new money in the early 20th century, etc.) were also just collages of tacky details when they were built. With the passage of time you can start calling those collages of tacky details a "style" – but in a hundred years the same could be said for the McMansions of today. It's much like how kids today can look at fashion from the 1970s and think of it as a "style".

    The difference being, of course, than in 100 years those McMansions will have fallen down or been torn down and replaced by something else because, as you say, they're shoddily constructed crap. While the houses in your average downtown Midwestern town will still be there in another century because they were built in an era where building a house was predominantly thought of as "something you do once and it lasts forever" and not as a permanent jobs program to keep people employed.

  • In the SF bay area the 1989 quake was a real wake-up for builders. Houses are now bolted to the foundation, have shear walls designed in and BTW brick is not your first choice in an earthquake zone. Also, double-pane glass is pretty standard, and higher insulation levels are required. So while you will mostly see stick-built, and we have our share of ugly mcmansions, in several areas the quality has dramatically increased over the drafty barns that were the norm when energy was cheap.

  • A note: I'm a musician, and my last apartment was a pre-WWI monstrosity. High ceilings, and the whole thing was built so solid that I could blast my trumpet into the wee hours and not disturb the people in the next room. Truly a blessing.

    My new apartment, while cosmetically much nicer, is built of flimsy materials, and you can hear a mouse fart three rooms over. Forget playing my trumpet in there. Not going to happen without risking a lawsuit or physical violence from the neighbors.

    In sum: thick plaster walls FTW.

  • I'm in Southern California, which feels like the Ur-locus of showoffs. One pattern seems to be that acreage and setback is the only distinction between 4000 sq ft middle class houses made of paint and particle board (plywood is sometimes seen on custom construction in Beverly Hills) and the aspiring-bankrupts houses on the hill.

    The $2 million and $500,000 houses all have the bank lobby design, the 1.5 bathrooms per person, and the home gym. But in the more expensive ones highfiving the neighbors is not possible. I'm guessing it's just a status marker. Practically nobody likes the people around them, as far as I can see.

  • We spent over 10 years browsing around our neighborhood for a house, sometimes seriously and sometimes just to remind ourselves that we'd never buy a house (happy ending; the last crash made a nice 1500 sf 1914 bungalow meet our income and we'll live here until we can't walk upstairs any more). In 2002 or so we looked at a brand new loft-derived townhouse in a densely-packed, urban-scaled little infill development nearby. They had all the cost-cutting "amenities" that had already become cliche at the time – a near-useless "live/work" ground floor mostly devoted to garage, artfully-stained concrete floors, a main floor that looks good when carefully-enough staged to conceal the lack of room for a full-size couch, and a "loft" bedroom somewhere upstairs fully open to the living and kitchen floors, allowing every fart to be heard throughout the house. But for all that, I was sad that we could never even hope to afford one at, as I recall, $425,000 (not a shockingly high price around here back then). And nothing about it particularly screamed "badly made shithole". Last year, now safe in our nice, solid, and much cheaper house, one of those places came up for sale again and we went to the open house. The level of deterioration was shocking – I've spent a long long time bemoaning the flimsiness of modern construction, but this was my first chance to see a real before-and-after – badly cracked floors, finishes peeling off kitchen cabinetry, water-damaged mdf swelling everywhere, trim pieces popping off walls, evidence of regular and substantial winter leaks around the sliding glass doors, chipped and unrepairable stair treads, carpet 5 years past its 5 year lifespan – in fact, the whole house looked 5 years past its 5 year lifespan. Without diligent care, it felt like the whole thing would rot into the ground in 20 years. The 100-year-old house we bought survived 40+ years of utter neglect, and it's doing fine.

    About the "architectural style" of old homes, NonyNony's quite right – almost every 19th-early-20th century house extant and noticed in this country is a revivalist style that was to some degree a violation of the integrity or cultural position of its source. Fake-palladian windows are really fucking ugly in a contemporary mcmansion, but there's some fake-palladian going on in that last photo up there, and it looks fine to me. Somewhere on the internet is a scathing criticism, written circa 1900, of the domestic architecture of San Francisco; as I recall it dismisses SF's endless blocks of newly-constructed rowhouses, gaudily bedecked with mass-produced and vulgar ornamentation, as suitable only for the kind of tasteless yahoos who would consider civilization even possible this far from Boston. Of course these are the same Italianate and Queen Anne houses that have turned half of SF into a historic overlay zone today, and they've mostly survived their own cycles of neglect astonishingly well. The difference between architectural gewgaws made of molded polystyrene and those made of an entire coastline of old-growth redwood is amazing.

  • Talisker is right about selection bias- we only see the stuff from 1910 that has lasted. I don't think anyone is going to bemoan the loss of the tenements that were built at the turn of the last century in any city.
    My dad hates old homes- he thinks that they are drafty energy wasters, and are ticking time bombs when it comes to upkeep. Modern (post 90s) homes often seem to be shoddy, and it's because of the lack of proper code enforcement and speed of construction. The building materials used now are way better than what was used 100 years ago (pressure treated wood? insulation?) and we know more about structural design and safety now. I once lived in a house that had a foundation from the 1860s- mold grew on the walls in basement, and mice got in (that my cat found endlessly entertaining). I also paid about 3x as much as I should have in energy bills.
    As for style, remember that during the 60s, people loved the concrete block, square monstrosities. Things go in and out of fashion. We love "old" looking stuff now, we just don't actually want to live in "old" buildings.

  • c u n d, go read The Loudest Voice in the Room chapters on the McMansion owned by Roger Ailes and his wife.

    Talk about your poster child…

    Ailes, his third wife Beth, and their young son Zachary moved to a huge estate in Garrison, N.Y., where they bought the local newspaper, turned it into a right-wing attack vehicle, and regularly tried to browbeat fellow residents and local politicians over zoning regulations. They installed security cameras all over the property, built a bunker under their mansion, designed to weather a terrorist attack, and stocked it with a six-month food supply. “I’m not allowed to talk about it,” Roger’s older brother Robert told the author. “I think the proper term is a ‘panic room.’ ”

  • As hodge-podgy as some early 20th C homes may be, I love them — their looks, their size, their flow, everything. We could even afford those Queen Anne and Craftsman style piles if we were to move to places like Springfield MO and other Bible Belt scarytowns.

    But quality of life is an issue. Closets are miniscule. There is one (tiny, ancient, uncleanable) bathroom even if there are five bedrooms and three floors. You can't get a king mattress through the door. Few outlets, dangerous wiring. Narrow pipes that back up if your shower lasts more than two minutes. Sewer pipes broken by tree roots and clogged by decades of sludge. No central air in summer. Enormous heating bills in winter. Inability to make the house safe and functional without a ton of money and a year of time (assuming you have a reliable and efficient contractor, and possibly the blessing of the historical society). On and on and on.

    I love these homes. I'll put up with a lot for the pleasure of high ceilings, thick walls, real wood, and soul-pleasing proportions. But it's hard to remember the esthetic value when cleaning neglected grody corners and having small repair jobs turn into huge, costly problems.

  • Wow, Ed, from the looks of these voluminous responses you seem to have hit a nerve. I'll read them all later (honest), but just wanted to mark a pattern I think we're seeing over the last couple of decades re: consumer goods in general. Before focus groups and surveys dominated production and determined what was offered for sale, producers used to make assumptions about minimal standards. Even bad architects, I'd bet, seemed to assume that a saleable house had to adhere to a certain minimum standard of reasonable appearance. But then "scientific" sampling led producers to experiment in just what minimum standards would continue to sell a product, and "frills" fell away, one by one. I'm sure in the building trades, "scientifically" considered so far as saleability is concerned, the minimal aesthetics or mediocre architects and minimal standards of self-respecting contractors went the way of other frivolous perks (e.g., nutrient value in food, durability in clothing). They asked the question, "At what aesthetic level does our clientele exist?" So far, they haven't found the bottom… We live in a culture in which greed, pure and simple, steers the ship By the time buyers discover the shoddiness of the merchandise, it's too late to complain, far less besmirch the reputation of the thief who sold it to them.
    I'm sure others have said this better than I did, but I haven't read it anywhere!

  • My first home was a duplex in a questionable neighborhood, built in 1977. I didn't realize it at the time I was living there, but that house was rock-solid. In 10 years of living there, all we did was interior paint and normal household chores (gutter-cleaning, sidewalk-edging type of stuff). Then we bought the 1990 single-family house in a better neighborhood and were immediately sorry. All the floors squeak, none of the doors hung plumb, the insulation was non-existant, and the basic construction is appalling. We constantly have mold on the basement walls and the upstairs simply cannot be heated or cooled to a comfortable temperature. The 2x4s are not actually 2×4.

  • Two-and-a-half-story great room? Oh, perfect!…for when you need to test your prototype mini-Predator drone, I guess… Seriously, it doesn't matter how much furniture you cram in there, it'll never feel "furnished". It's just this giant, randomly-shaped space. Like living in a big cave full of drywall.

    I love this.

  • Re styles: weren't Foursquare and Craftsman actually home-grown coherent styles of the turn of the century, and a reaction against the hodge-podge architecture of that era's mcmansions? I hope (though don't expect) that the crafts-y hipsters of today inspire a similar movement in home architecture.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    What kills me about these McMansions is, a lot of them are built practically up to the lot line. In the old days, a huge house would have huge grounds to match. I can only assume that the newer McMs are (were) marketed to people who are uninterested in yard work (or in hiring a gardener) and/or can barely afford the house itself.

  • Late to the parade as usual, someone might have noted this already.

    As a matter of fact, houses today and most everything that goes in them is much better to than it was at the turn of the previous century. I'm not fond of OSB for sheathing still preferring plywood. But a mega house or even one very well built will have a huge structural advantage with TJI joists over sawn lumber, etc. and so on.

    The same is true in the "then vs. now" for plumbing, doors and windows and, the biggest, electrical.

    Prices will vary by region, of course, but in Wisconsin a house of 4,000SF or so can be built today to the same level of architectural detail and cost about the same in adjust dollars as it was in 1890.

    Please return to meaningfully deep non-wonky dialogue.

  • One thing to remember is one reason for the shoddier materials: there are 300 million Americans, a billion "First Worlders", and seven billion people in the world. Quality, natural materials are harder to source now.

  • I guess it was from an old "60 Minutes" where the comment was that so many new streets look like they're comprised of nothing but funeral homes.

  • I've seen some McMansions here in Oakland – usually, someone buys a decrepit victim of deferred maintenance, razes it and throws up a Barbie's Dream House that leaves just enough room for a driveway. It just occurred to me, from reading these responses, how fortunate the contractors and owners are that they don't have to take snow into account. Or rain, for the most part. Just earthquakes. We're far enough from the hills that fire and landslides are not a worry.

    Our first house was a Craftsman bungalow. Nice old place with lots of original features. If Son #1 hadn't had his heart set on having a little brother, we'd probably still be there.

  • Brian Ogilvie says:

    There's a huge variation in construction standards; the inspector who inspected my 1996 Cape (about 1800 sf) said that it had far better construction than many contemporary houses, even here in Massachusetts where houses need to stand up to some pretty nasty winters.

    On a different note: when I started house-hunting, I leafed through a book called "The Not So Big House" at the local B&N. I was interested in living without taking up too much space. But the book opened with stories of people who bought 7000 sf houses and ended up deciding that they could live just as happily in 3500 sf houses with less wasted space. So at least for that author, "not so big" meant a small McMansion.

  • I bought a house with "charm". Its currently 95 years old, and has the kind of attention to detail that you just don't find around anything built here in the last 60 years. It also should be owned by someone who is richer than the people who built it a century ago. (Read: Not me.)

    Turns out if you want to maintain one of these things, and keep up the quality of the building materials, you're gonna be doing what's called in the business, "paying out the ass".

    There's a reason people are framing rooms with friggin aluminum foil studs from Home Depot: Because that's all regular people can afford. Go down to he olde Home Depot some time and take a look at the price difference between the least and most expensive option for any product. The high quality product will cost five times as much, and will still be of lesser quality than what the low quality option would have been thirty years ago. Today's "value" building products would have passed for childrens' toys when my father was my age.

    It's not all bad. Things like cheap-assed PVC piping that'll never rust is probably a step up from the ancient iron pipes I'm slowly replacing. But attention to detail and fit and finish have gone out the window a long time ago.

  • "Inflation is a powerful thing. $4.50 in 1964 has the same purchasing power as $34 in 2014, and $34 isn't too far off the price of a pair of low-to-mid-market jeans today."

    Depends on which numbers you're using, according to these guys:

    http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/

    "$4,000 in 1964 has the same purchasing power as about $30,000 today, and you can get a damn nice, loaded 2014 sedan for $30,000. Plus, the sedan you buy today probably won't kill you if you get in a minor accident, and it has nice things like cruise control, GPS navigation, satellite radio, and bluetooth."

    Back in the 60's, both jeans and automobiles were manufactured HERE, including most of their pieces, that's not the case these days and the wages paid to people who work in the 3rd world sweatshops are the reason that those jeans aren't $100/pr and the car's are affordable. A generalization, to be sure, but there's plenty to back it up.

    I went looking for a story from some years back, about a major home builder in the area of Zanesville, OH who was forced out of business by a spate of lawsuits relating to poor building practices (many homes had half-wall brick veneers and the flashing was installed improperly leading to water being directed into the stud cavities–very bad). I couldn't find that story, but I did find this:

    http://builder-implode.com/imploded.html

    It's a lot scarier than what I went looking for.

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  • Talisker Says:

    "It doesn't have to be this way. Germany had to replace a lot of its housing stock after 1945, for obvious reasons. At least in the West, they built spacious (but not absurdly huge), solidly constructed homes that are actually pleasant to live in. But it didn't happen through the magic of the free market, it required (gasp, shock, horror) government planning."

    When I was stationed in Germany, I was told that the pre-WWII housing was very crappy, and burned quite well. The reaction to that was to required much sturdier and more fireproof housing after the war.

  • Those of the late 19th and early 20th century buildings that have survived are often quite impressive to this day, but that's survivor bias. Every era has good and bad buildings. The 19th century big thing was ornamentation and the movement from the formal Victorian parlor style (with an iron stove) to the less formal bungalow style (with a fireplace) starting after the big fair in 1876.

    In the 1920s, the big things were electricity, automatic heating, indoor plumbing, garages and modern conveniences. By the 1930s, most of the US housing stock was deemed god awful with outhouses, bad ventilation, poor lighting, wretched kitchens and so on. All those kitschy modern kitchen ads were, for most people, pipe dreams not realized until after WWII.

    In the 1970s, the energy crunch led to some serious redesign. How long has it been since you've seen "jack frost", ice crystals inside your window? People have insulated windows, and walls, nowadays. Tyvek wrapping prevents a lot of moisture problems. Metal brackets bolster 2×4 and 4×4 construction. We live in an early 1990s house, and we love the layout, the heat pump, the lighting and so on. It seems pretty well built, and we've heard that from building inspectors and architects.

    People have been bitching about cheesy American balloon construction since at least the late 18th century, but land and wood were relatively cheap here. Labor was relatively expensive. If you have a good supply of wood and access to iron nails and fittings, you can build a larger house for the same effort.

    McMansions are driven by the rising price of land. When the 1/4 acre lot costs $500,000, a builder has to put at least $500,000 into the house itself. They'd put in even more and build apartment towers, but zoning generally prevents this. If you think a McMansion puts pressure on local infrastructure, compare that with a 12 unit apartment building.

    I don't particularly like McMansions, but not everyone, even in the 1%, can afford to go to the next level. If you ever check out Bel Air, hard by the UCLA campus, you'll see huge houses, 5,000 feet and way up, with lots of lovely landscaping and each in its own amazing style. It's almost a museum with oversize rose covered cottages next to mini-chateaux, next to pagodas, next to the Roman forum.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    @ Anubis Bard, @ Turkle

    In the northeastern US, 1955 is a good cutoff date for the survivor bias of quality construction: 1955 marks the transition from plaster-and-lath to drywall.

    Old or new, the owner's way ahead if she's handy with tools and likes working on weekend projects.

  • I used to work for a company that manufactured engineered wood I-joists used for floors in new house construction. Per our orders from the builders, the joists were designed to the bare minimum of code compliance. Did the new home owners care about floor joists? Only when/if their marble tiles cracked. See, the marble tiles in the entry and dining room is pretty and highly visible, so the homeowners like that. But try to explain that an extra $10,000 worth of structural member material in the design of the floor might have made the difference in the pretty marble cracking or not cracking; we never got very far.

    One developer did a cost/benefit analysis and determined that if they need to replace the marble on one house in 10, they were making a profit. So they gave the new homeowners a trampoline for a floor, and counted the money.

  • skwerlhugger says:

    Wood. I pull out a rotted window frame from 1940 and replace it with the best clear pine I can find (usually from NZ), the new piece is like balsa wood in comparison.

    Renovating a house in Germany, the workmen would hear my American accent and laugh, telling about seeing the stick houses on their vacations here. Best quote: "we wouldn't build a doghouse like that here". I wasn't insulted, it was true. It's not post-war regulations; our German house built on the cheap by a working-class laborer and his friends in the 1930s was a fortress compared to our strangely-similar-circumstances house in the USA.

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