Building Consultants, Inc.

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Modern Housing
Nan Harvey, A.I.A.
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 countries.

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 house?

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 BCI provides expert project review for real estate transactions.

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