Monday, December 05, 2005

Disposable architecture

I wanted to respond to this op-ed letter in the Sunday Chronicle:
LETTERS
Our disposable architecture

REGARDING the Chronicle's Nov. 30 article "ARCHITECTURE / Why the buildings of our lifetime won't last long enough for our grandkids to see them," which told about the closing of the Masterson YWCA: This facility is a high-visibility example of the emphasis on aesthetics, and demonstrates the lack of concern about trends in construction quality. Unfortunately, this is only a very small tip of a very large iceberg.

The boom taking place in new, close-in, multifamily housing that is revitalizing central Houston is almost guaranteed to show the same symptoms in the not far-distant future, but on a much more massive scale.

Current building codes are simply not adequate to prevent shoddy construction; this is going to lead to high maintenance costs and rapid decay of an enormous number of structures. To see what will be coming, visit the areas south of U.S. 59 along Chimney Rock. Twenty years ago, the parking lots of these apartment complexes were filled with the BMW's and Corvettes of the yuppies who came to Houston for the oil boom. Today, those same complexes are showing up on the nightly news as the site of many of Houston's murders. Ironically, the warehouses near downtown that were built when substantial construction was emphasized are now being converted into high-value residences. (Their underlying structures are sound.)

This is also happening in many cities around the world: brownstones in New York, older homes in Georgetown, homes north of the Boston Common and along Houston's North and South boulevards — all of these are examples of how well-built housing maintains its value to the community in more than just its tax base.

I'd like to see the trend toward disposable architecture reversed, but the public and city officials don't seem to be aware of the problems, so the problems are likely to get much worse before they get better.

LES ALBIN Houston

I've heard this mentioned before. Basically, "we don't build 'em like we used to." Commercial developers are also looking for ever-shorter payback periods to reduce risk and increase returns, so they don't really build-to-last either. The question is: Are we sure this is a bad thing?

Obviously, if you buy a townhome that turns out to be poorly constructed with maintenance nightmares after not-too-many-years, that's certainly a bad situation. We do need some minimal building codes with good enforcement. But if we raise building standards too high, then costs get out of control, affordability drops, and then stuff doesn't get built at all. There is clearly a cost vs. quality tradeoff, and hopefully your building inspector helps you get a feel for the value of what you're buying. Are we better off in a city with a lot of expensive "built-to-last" structures that are renovated for new uses? Or with cheaper structures that just get torn down and replaced every so often? I think an argument can be made for the latter.

Demand for different types of structures shifts over time. What's in and out of style is constantly shifting. And technology is changing society at ever faster rates. Does it make sense to invest in a structure that will last 50, 100, or more years and then try to continuously re-adapt it as needed? It actually may be more efficient to build a cheaper, less lasting structure with the expectation of tearing it down in a decade or two and replacing it with whatever is in demand then. This has certainly been the trend in all sorts of consumer products, where it often makes more sense to throw-away and replace rather than repair (well, hopefully recycle and replace).

The downside is we never develop the old, historical character like European cities. But it is very, very expensive to keep re-adapting ancient buildings vs. tear-down and replace. I'm in no way advocating tear-down-and-replace for older cities - they would lose a lot of their great character. But in a newer, more modern city like Houston, does it make any sense to try to go down that road?

Certainly there is a renaissance happening in some older city cores with old structures being renovated into hip lofts (inc. parts of Houston). But I would argue for every one of those buildings, there are at least ten decrepit ones in a lot of older cities, esp. in the Rust Belt. I remember driving through Philly once seeing mile after mile of run-down brownstones. Maybe these older cities would be in better shape today if they had had cheaper building stock that was more easily replaced (I'm not talking about land value, but the cost of constructing the structure). Of course, one of the key drivers of sprawl is people looking for bigger, cheaper, newer housing. If core housing was more disposable, maybe more renewal would be happening in the core? As it currently is, land values have to get pretty high before it makes economic sense to tear-down and replace, like is happening in West U, Bellaire, and some other inside-the-loop areas.

Also keep in mind that older housing stock is our largest source of affordable housing. It's really hard to build new affordable housing. But there's plenty of 20, 30, and 40-year old affordable stuff out there. The natural cycle is that offices, apartments, and houses are built new for the high-end, then slowly decay to mid-level, and eventually become cheap space, until it finally gets torn down. Even Jane Jacobs noted this way back in the 50s in her call for diverse building ages to get vibrant neighborhoods (a lot of smaller businesses can't afford the newer stuff). Might we be better off if cheaper construction let us accelerate this cycle? Build it cheap, get your fast payback, and then replace it with something newer, more fashionable, and more in-tune with the market demands of that time (maybe even New Urbanism?).

I'm not advocating shoddy work. Just saying there is a value-point, where quality and cost are in balance, and that the optimal point might be cheaper and lower quality than you think - at least from a city perspective. As a buyer, well, be sure to question your building inspector very carefully...

13 Comments:

At 11:50 PM, December 05, 2005, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I think there is some merit to the "instant-slum" argument (or more accurately slum in 10-20 years) which says we should have higher building standards. There is also some merit to the obsolescence theory, which says that buildings will become functionally obsolete or inferior in 20-30 years, so they should be torn down and rebuilt.

Overall, I think Houston is shifted too far towards the instant-slum side and needs to shift somewhat towards higher quality. My perception is that small increases in the construction cost can yield disproportionately large quality improvements, ie spending 10% extra improves quality 30%. I think that's the case when things are being done dirt-cheap.

In terms of the "Gulfton Geto" apartment zone, it was already a lost cause 20 years ago. You have to go back to the late 1970s for it to be a good area. I remember a cheesy entrepreneur who received county support to try to revitalize a complex, but it failed. He had a great Christmas light display back around 1984.

The problem is, many of these cheaply built apartments from the 1960s and 1970s are going to be around for a long, long time. There are some occasional teardowns, but for the most part they are kept in a minimally tolerable condition and will be around indefinitely as slum areas. There is just not enough teardown and renovation going on, which is where the obsolescence/revitalization model breaks down.

 
At 7:21 AM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> My perception is that small increases in the construction cost can yield disproportionately large quality improvements, ie spending 10% extra improves quality 30%.

If that's the case, then that would seem like a no-brainer to me for tougher standards.

 
At 11:29 AM, December 06, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

The problem is that things don't get torn down and rebuilt easily with Houston's mindset of endless free space for development. So an area starts to go downhill, no one wants to live there if they can afford not to, and the shoddy buildings go into a downward spiral.

you can see the "slums of the future" dynamic even around older cities - take a look at some of the areas of Alexandria, VA, just outside DC, to see it in action.

It would be interesting if buildings had an "expiration date" at which point those who build them have to pay to replace or renovate them....

 
At 11:44 AM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> It would be interesting if buildings had an "expiration date" at which point those who build them have to pay to replace or renovate them....

I wonder if you could do a blight property tax penalty that would give them a financial incentive to at least spruce the place up, if not tear it down and replace?

 
At 12:41 PM, December 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> My perception is that small increases in the construction cost can yield disproportionately large quality improvements, ie spending 10% extra improves quality 30%.


If that is the case then more people would be willing to pay that extra 10%

 
At 1:09 PM, December 06, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

I would say that you want to either design buildings with some real permanence, or design them to be truly temporary. Now let me explain what I mean by this.

An approach that we're starting to see in the green architecture world is to build a high-quality, sturdy, energy-efficient, long-lasting shell for the building, and then do the interior in flexible building systems so that the space inside can be easily readapted and reconfigured for new uses and changes in technology. That way, the building is less likely to become functionally obsolete, and we get around the instant slum issue that others have mentioned.

Pliny Fisk, a leading green architect in Austin, has developed a concept house that basically carries these principles over from the commercial / institutional side to fit the changing needs of a family home. The idea of being able to reconfigure the inside of your house without costly, disruptive, time-consuming renovations is to my mind very appealing.

There are several classes of buildings that should truly be of a more temporary nature. Jiffy Lube does not need to be a 100-year structure. These buildings should be designed for easy disassembly so that the materials can be reclaimed for future use rather than discarded.

There are obviously other issues here too - where to allow such "temporary" structures, whether to have entire "temporary areas", etc... and I don't have the energy to dive into that. But I wanted to at least put forward this bifurcated approach to building for permanence with flexibility in mind and building for the short term.

 
At 1:59 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger MichaelMcLees said...

I don't know about you guys, but I'm a big fan of lofts. Once commercial, they are now luxurious and tall walled apartments. What we forget is that things built in the past, such as these large warehouses that will seemingly last forever, might have been cheaper to build at that time than today.

It seems like every time something big and timeless is built with extraordinarily high standards, 50 years later, historians qualify it. They say, "Of course, this building could never be built today because the costs of construction would be too high. Workers would demand too much for their labor. The cost of materials would bankrupt any investor."

Essentially, right now, people aren’t willing to give up their labor or materials for a cost that makes feasible ultra-high quality results.

When the time is right for these types of buildings to be built, it will happen. For now, we need to adopt the Gattis Doctrine: Build for cheap, that way something gets built.

 
At 3:05 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

>> My perception is that small increases in the construction cost can yield disproportionately large quality improvements, ie spending 10% extra improves quality 30%.


> If that is the case then more people would be willing to pay that extra 10%

Not if the lower quality is hidden and the builder is just flipping it to a buyer before that becomes apparent. I don't have a feel for how much a building inspector can uncover vs. not.

 
At 6:42 PM, December 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a) Not if the lower quality is hidden and the builder is just flipping it to a buyer before that becomes apparent. I don't have a feel for how much a building inspector can uncover vs. not.

b) If that's the case, then that would seem like a no-brainer to me for tougher standards.

tory,


given a, how is b going to work. If you cant tell what the quality is, how can tougher standards work. Dont tell me that a person who is putting their own hard earned money down is less likely to be able to discover the quality of construction than some government employee.

 
At 6:47 PM, December 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My perception is that small increases in the construction cost can yield disproportionately large quality improvements, ie spending 10% extra improves quality 30%."


Theory of diminishing returns, this is true for everything at some amount, but not always true through the whole range of values. We buy "Quality" until the increase in cost is equal to the increase in value.

 
At 7:06 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

>tory, given a, how is b going to work. If you cant tell what the quality is, how can tougher standards work. Dont tell me that a person who is putting their own hard earned money down is less likely to be able to discover the quality of construction than some government employee.

Again, I'm not an expert, but I would guess govt can inspect in-process during construction, so they can see things that would be hidden in the finished product.

 
At 11:24 PM, December 06, 2005, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I just want to clarify my statement
"My perception is that small increases in the construction cost can yield disproportionately large quality improvements, ie spending 10% extra improves quality 30%."

First of all, I say it is a perception because I don't have any hard facts to back up that statement.

Second, I am a livelong apartment dweller and I base the statement on my experience. Most apartments, even "luxury" apartments, tend to have the cheapest possible fixtures in the bathroom. Toilets that don't work, sinks that chip if you drop a bottle in them, and fawcets that peel off their coating. In the apartment, noise insulation tends to be inadequate, especially on floors. (I once had gay guys living above me with paper-thin floors. Ever since then, I have always lived on the top floor.) Floors are often creaky even in relatively new units. Older apartments (pre-1980) tend to be extremely energy inefficient. New apartments are better but I often wonder if they are insulated at all when I can't keep them below 80 degrees in summer. Even in newer apartments, bathroom and kitchen fans recycle air into the same room (the ultimate in cheapness and design idiocy).

So, how much would it cost to resolve these problems? I'm thinking 10% of construction cost. But the benefits would be so great.

 
At 10:15 AM, December 07, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You know, somebody needs to build a big, popular web site that captures consumer reviews of apartments - just like they do on travel sites for hotels. Google could own this space. It would be really popular, and get apartment builders and owners in line on quality pretty quickly. Based on the trips I've planned using tripadvisor.com, the Internet has certainly exposed the hidden flaws of most hotels.

 

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