You have no doubt heard this common expression: “They don’t build ’em like they used to.” In response, I’ve heard some craftspeople say, “Thank goodness,” while others nod in agreement, longing for a time when craftsmanship was celebrated over efficiency and profit.
In my career as a builder specializing in historic preservation, I can see both sides. I’m usually saying “Thank goodness” when I look at structural issues. For example, framing in old bungalow houses near Fort Worth, Texas, where my business is based, can be a mess. I commonly see 15-by-20-foot rooms built with 2x4 ceiling joists. These joists often carry heavy plaster ceilings and bow 3 to 4 inches across a room. Even with joists cut from old-growth yellow pine, the weight of the plaster has overwhelmed the undersized members. It seems builders hadn’t quite worked out lumber-span charts when those bungalows were built. Another example I often see is basement walls of historic houses that were poured without rebar. In our area of North Texas, we have a lot of clay in our soil that is expansive, and these foundation walls have not aged well, to say the least.
Structure aside, I would argue that historic homes surpass new homes today when it comes to aesthetics and design. Let’s start at the front door for an example: The well-proportioned casing around a 1910 bungalow can be 4 to 5 inches in width, with a cap made from three different moldings. In 1920, no opening or pass-through existed that wasn’t trimmed and decorated. The idea of drywall (or plaster) returns without trim around an opening wasn’t considered, even on the cheapest of houses. When you add in decorative built-ins and working fireplaces, it’s easy to see that there has been a change of mindset about building.
This shift occurred after WWII, led by men like William Levitt, who changed home building in the U.S. In an effort to meet the post-war surge in housing demand, Levitt broke unions, ignored craft, and adopted a cookie-cutter, one-after-another approach. This approach had grown out of “American Housing”—a long governmental report written in the 1940s that analyzed the home-building industry of the 1930s. It reduced home building to a few clear “problems”—the biggest, according to the report, was that builders spent too much time crafting homes instead of building them with a production, or “car-factory,” mindset. But in the process of instilling factory-like efficiencies to home building, Levitt and his cohort also changed design by stripping any sense of scale and proportion out of the building. The cookie-cutter Monopoly houses of 1950s “tracts” evolved by 1980 to a period of “McMansions” and “starter castles”—large, cheaply built houses that completely lacked elegance in scale and proportion.
There are at least three key takeaways from the past that can help us build better today: First, by studying historic homes we can learn to infuse our buildings with a better sense of scale and proportion. Second, examples from the past challenge and encourage us to raise our level of craftsmanship. Finally, both traditional design and traditional craftsmanship provide us with a distinct sales and marketing advantage in today’s home-building market.Read More