I see the shell of a 90 year old house and pity the waste of its demolition. I wonder if the new construction materials and methods will last that long. And is 90 years long enough? Ask anyone in Europe and they’ll tell you that 100 years is just the beginning of a building’s life.
What could make us want to demolish an urban house after only 90 years?
We don’t live the way we did 90 years ago.
In 1925 we lived in small rooms, each with its own purpose.
- Living and Dining Rooms: We ate as a family in the dining room every evening. We sat in the living room as a family and interacted playing games, talking and listening to the radio; or we shared the space while involved with individual activities such as reading, sewing, doing homework. Today we live in the kitchen: it is now more than just a food prep area.
- Bedrooms: Accommodated a double or single bed with bedside table and had a small closet. We had fewer clothes in 1925. It had one light.
- Bathroom: The original house had one bathroom with lead pipes. We now want more bathrooms and bigger water pipes that are not lead. We also have new fixtures to conserve water and control water temperature. In 1925 everyone bathed: in 2015 most people shower.
- Kitchen: The original kitchen was a food prep area: a laboratory. Rather than being a separate room it is now the social hub of the family: a light-filled space often open to the living room – or living “area”.
- We need more power today. Power supplies have been updated several times since 1925. Often walls and ceiling (made of plaster & lath) are damaged and repaired to install such upgrades. Our houses now are being run by technology which is often hampered by old building construction methods.
- The coal or oil furnaces with their chutes, bins or tanks were replaced with other heating methods such as electricity and gas. We no longer need a chimney.
- Air conditioning? In old houses without ducts the concept of central air is impossible.
- Insulation? We now know how much energy we can save by properly insulating our homes. In an old brick-construction building the only way to bring the insulation levels up to 21st century standards is to clad the wall inside or outside: costly and messy.
- In 1925 the windows were a single pane of glass puttied into a wood frame: simple and elegant if maintained with regular painting and putty replacement. Today we have triple-glazed windows filled with inert gas to prevent heat transfer through the window. We also use superior sealants to install the new windows.
- The original brick construction needs constant maintenance: tuck-pointing and vigilance for water damage. Most urban dwellers no longer have the knowledge or proclivity to do such work.
- The foundation may be failing: walls and weeping tiles crumbling, floor heaving from tree roots. These details may make turning the basement into additional living space difficult.
- In 2015 most urban families want more interior space than exterior space: we rarely spend free times in private yards.
So will the new house made of wood frame / particle board construction last as long as 90 years?
If you read blogs about aging houses it still really does depend on maintenance. New finish materials can adequately protect the structure. But when they are eventually demolished will they be safe to add to a landfill? The questions we can’t answer are the social issues that may see our concept of home evolve so that the 2015 house no longer supports the 2105 activities and the technological advances that can be better incorporated into new construction than retrofitted to old.
In my utopia we will build housing that can adapt.
Interesting article comparing a 1925 house with a 2014 from Wall Street Journal, 01/ 2014: