The other morning I stopped at a local mom-and-pop coffee stand to grab some breakfast. I was about to settle for a toasted bagel when a charmingly hand-lettered sign near the register caught my eye.
"Homemade Breakfast Sandwich," it read. "A toasted English muffin with crispy bacon, fresh eggs and medium cheddar cheese."
Although I wouldn’t dream of ordering such a thing from the typical fast-food joint, the handwritten sign and homey locale made it sound pretty enticing. Visions of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle wafted into my head.
Imagine my reaction when, perhaps 30 seconds after I’d ordered it, the proprietor handed me a scalding hot yet soggy something-or-other straight from the microwave. The "fresh eggs" were some sort of prefabricated, pale-yellow patty, the bacon a pre-fried strip of salt, and the "medium cheddar" a glossy orange square of Velveeta.
So much for a "homemade" sandwich.
Now, it happens that this shop’s owners are recent immigrants from an Asian country famous for its fresh, healthy cuisine. Why, I wondered, would they even offer greasy, salty, precooked American pap that tastes like a simulation of actual food?
I think the answer is that we Americans, old and new alike, are slowly but surely resigning ourselves to accept fakery in everything we buy — even those of us who, like the coffee shop folks, ought to know better.
The construction field is no exception. Wannabe building materials — the architectural equivalent of junk food — are rapidly becoming the default standard in remodeling and new construction alike. Consider the typical building project: On the outside are Styrofoam moldings meant to look like cement, or cement moldings meant to look like stone, or plastic moldings meant to look like wood.
On the roof you may variously find asphalt shingles masquerading as cedar, concrete ones masquerading as clay, or rubber ones pretending to be slate.
Exterior walls are liable to be dressed up in vinyl or pressed sawdust siding, usually embossed with an outrageous caricature of wood grain. Windows, more often than not made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, will have fake grids thrown in to make them look more like the genuine wooden kind.
Inside you’ll find pressed sawdust doors, also straining mightily to look like wood. Underfoot are "hardwood" floors that are actually plastic laminated over a photograph of the real article, or perhaps "linoleum" flooring that’s made out of yet more PVC. The kitchen countertops might be "stone" conjured out of polymethyl methacrylate and aluminum trihydrate.
Now, many of these wannabe materials are ostensibly used to save money, and granted, they may sometimes be cheaper than the genuine article. Yet if you figure in the all-important cost of labor, there are plenty of fakes — imitation stone countertops and artificial slate roofing are good examples — whose price only just barely undercuts the real thing.
Not to mention that the lion’s share of imitation materials, many of which are petroleum-based, are inherently less green than the things they seek to imitate. Which ought to make us think twice about what we choose to build with. Put another way: Do we hold out for real medium cheddar, or just settle for Velveeta?
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