published March, 2001, Howard County Business Monthly
A comment I often hear is "Houses just aren't built like they used to be!" My
response is always - "That's good!" I know the speaker is thinking modern houses
aren't as durable as houses that had been built long ago but there are many
reasons for that and many reasons why the houses today are better.
The houses built long ago that are still standing today, the ones that prompt
the sighs and derisive comments about modern house construction, are usually the
best house construction from that time period. Needless to say, the best-built
houses today will stand much longer than the cheapest houses. European houses
that are centuries old were the castles, mansions and estates, the housing of
the upper echelons, when they were built and the price tags at the time
reflected the quality of the construction, the same as today. What we don't see
are the hovels that the masses lived in, most likely because the quality of
construction was so poor they've fallen down!
The houses built long ago that are still standing today most likely have been
continuously inhabited. Nothing deteriorates a house like standing empty for
long periods of time - ask anybody who's renovated an estate sale house that had
been abandoned since the owner's death. Of course, flood, fire, earthquake,
tornado or other natural disasters can quickly damage a house more than
emptiness can but squirrels, burst water pipes, vandals and the elements destroy
a house impressively.
The houses built now are better built because many modern conveniences are
included that were not included in houses built long ago. Conveniences, I might
add, that have become code requirements such as electric wiring, heating and
cooling systems, mechanical ventilation and indoor plumbing. Local, state and
federal codes require adequate lighting, emergency exits, structural systems and
space allocations for specific areas. Bedrooms can't have 6' ceilings, stairs
can't be too steep or narrow and every house has to have a bathroom. These are
standards that the developed countries alone enjoy today; our houses are better
than those built long ago but also better than those built in less fortunate
What makes American houses most unique though is the penchant for Americans
to want LOTS OF SPACE and sacrifice quality of that space for quantity. That
trend seems to be changing overall with more Americans across the country
building smaller houses with more built-ins (bookcases, cabinetry, and detailed
woodwork), with higher quality finishes (tile versus sheet vinyl, wood paneling
versus painted gypsum board or vinyl wall covering) and including higher quality
systems (data networking, vacuum tubing, radiant heating). The spaces are
becoming smaller and more personal, Americans finally realizing that big spaces
are not comfortable spaces, not homey. The trend has not surfaced in Howard
County but then, when was the last time a builder asked you what you wanted in a
Nan Harvey attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA
(BA in Art), and graduate school at Va. Tech. in architecture. She moved to
Washington, DC then Baltimore, where she renovated a rowhouse and then an old
farmhouse while working for various architectural firms in Baltimore.
Nan started Building Consultants, Inc. construction monitoring and condition
survey services in April 1990, and added environmental services in 2000. As a
dedicated volunteer for Habitat for Humanity International, Nan has built houses
for deserving families in Nepal and Brazil.
She can be reached at BCI at (410) 715-2277 or nan@eConstructionServices.com.
BCI provides expert project review for real estate transactions.