Disposable architectureI wanted to respond to this op-ed letter in the Sunday Chronicle:
LETTERSI'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?
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
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...