I often hear people say of some old house, “Wow, they don’t build ’em like this anymore.” To which I’m often tempted to add, “And it’s a good thing, too.” There’s a lot to be said for the aesthetic of older homes — I’ve said a good deal of it myself — but on the technical side, houses are far better built today than they were just 30 years ago, let alone 60 or 100 years.
For one, we know a lot more about protecting houses from all the bad things that can happen to them.
Take fire safety: Older houses were built with wooden lath that made perfect kindling, single-wall furnace flues that could rust out and overheat, and damage- and overload-prone knob-and-tube wiring that could smolder and start fires. Modern houses are built with flame-resistant gypsum wallboard, double-wall flues, and better protected wiring systems. They’re also required to have smoke detectors, perhaps the most worthwhile life-safety feature of all.
New houses also hold up much better in earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. Prewar houses typically had little or no foundation reinforcement and were sheathed with horizontal boards that gave very little lateral strength. They also had rather casually connected floors, walls and roofs. Today’s houses, on the other hand, have well-reinforced foundations, enormously strong plywood shearwalls to resist wracking, and a host of inexpensive yet very effective metal connectors, the sum of which allows new homes to survive natural catastrophes that would probably destroy an older home.
But safety isn’t the only thing that’s improved. New houses are several times more energy efficient than those of just a generation ago, thanks to mandates for better floor, wall, ceiling and duct insulation, double-glazed windows, and more efficient furnaces and lighting.
They’re also more durable. Modern copper water pipes, for example, will easily last the life of the structure, which certainly can’t be said for the rust-prone galvanized steel pipe found in most older homes. And the “engineered lumber” used in today’s houses — much of it made from mill waste that used to be thrown out or burned — is stronger pound for pound than the solid-sawn lumber used by builders of yore. Even modern glass is better: While the French doors in old houses contain plain glass that shatters into dagger-like shards, the tempered glass required in modern doors crumbles into harmless little granules when broken.
Given that today’s homes are technically superior to yesterday’s, why do developers try so hard to make their new houses look as if they were old? And why do so many people nevertheless prefer to live in an actual old house with all the infirmities noted above? No doubt it has something to do with the peculiar human tendency to idealize bygone times. Or as the writer and humorist Finley Peter Dunne put it, “The past always looks better than it was; it’s only pleasant because it isn’t here.”
That can’t be the whole story, though. To my mind, when people say they don’t build houses like they used to, they’re not really talking about lumber, pipes and wiring. They’re talking about the one elusive quality you can’t build into any new house, no matter what the price: the inimitable dignity of a genuine past.