Monday, April 16, 2012

Is 'build it cheap' just a fad?

What if the crappy quality we see around us in so many things is not a function of the economics of manufacture, but a passing trend of consumerism?  What if it's a fad?  What if the pendulum of quality might inevitably swing in the other direction to a world where the things around us reflect a high level of design, thought and craftsmanship?  This idea came to me while looking at the antique architecture and construction in Portugal.  Beautiful buildings constructed almost entirely of stone...  When you consider the technology of the day, it is clear that these buildings were not built this way because it was easy, or cheap.  Two hundred years ago, these buildings required an army of skilled craftsman with a cavalry of workhorses and oxen.  Today, we have modern hydraulic machinery, electric hand tools, portable cranes, and networks of well surfaced roads to transport it all around easily.  The economic cost of construction to our overall society is a fraction of what it was...  there must be more to it.

That Retired Guy (TRG) lives in the company of quite a lot of old architecture.  The average age of the buildings on his street is probably about 175 years, and the average hides some wide variety.  The most recent stuff was finished a few years ago, and some of the old stuff is likely greater then 300 years old.

The contrast in building quality between the old and the new is dramatic, although the difference between the old and the very old is not so great.  Anything older then 75 years is generally constructed out of stone.  In this area, the local stone is granite, and the buildings here often contain MASSIVE blocks of this stone.  TRG is writing this from a bar, sitting next to a window which is framed in stone blocks about 1/2 a meter wide and more then a meter long.  The windows themselves are steel framed, and have an industrial look to them.  They appear original, and from this detail TRG is going to guess that this place is probably early 1900's because wood framed windows were much more common here before that, and steel like this was pretty much non-existent before the late 1800s.  According to wikipedia:

The modern era in steelmaking began with the introduction of Henry Bessemer's Bessemer process in 1858.

So, judging from the window frames, this building is probably turn of the century, which makes it pretty recent for the area, but old enough to have been built to the older standard.  

This building also has a feature characteristic of the older construction; the ceilings are very high.  Here it's about 4 meters, though it's not uncommon to see even taller ceilings in the more grand buildings.  The windows are large, and rise almost to the ceiling, and this gives the space a certain feeling that newer constructed buildings never have.  The large windows and high ceilings contrasted with the thick stone walls make the space feel both airy and permanent.  There's nothing special about this construction, Portugal has hundreds of thousands of buildings like it.  What is unique is that almost nothing built in the last 70 years shares these characteristics.  Modern construction comes in a multitude of forms, but high ceilings and thick walls are generally absent.

The reason most people give is that it is just too expensive to construct buildings this way now.  For example; structural reinforced concrete is cheaper then shaping and moving stone; not only because it is easier to bring to the location, but also because the laborers who install it can be lower skilled when compared to stonemasons.

Reinforced concrete was invented around the same time as modern steel (most reinforced concrete actually contains modern steel, although the reinforcement can be done with other materials).   According to

Reinforced concrete was invented (1849) by Joseph Monier, who received a patent in 1867.

It took some time for reinforced concrete to become common in construction, but ultimately it has become the principle material in nearly all but the tallest buildings.  It is not surprising that reinforced concrete replaced stone in construction, in fact, the material is so revolutionary that it actually changed the whole language of architecture.  The first architects to use it realized that the material had fantastic potential.  A quick look at this page shows a list of early examples, and that list (surprisingly) excludes the work of Frank Llyod Wright.  Anyone who doubts what can be done with reinforced concrete should visit Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City:

Looking at these early examples of reinforced concrete show it's phenomenal abilities, and also raises the question:

What happened?

Today reinforced concrete is more often associated with buildings like this:

It's funny how buildings in this stage of construction all look the same.  Will this be social housing, or luxury flats?   The distinction will come from minor differences in the quality of interior fixtures, and or the location of the building.

Reinforced concrete can be used to create 4 meter ceilings nearly as easily as the 2 meter ceilings in the building pictured, more material is required, and a little structural thought, but it's not as hard as moving 1500 kg blocks of stone was 200 years ago.  With the materials and technology today, there's really no excusing the crap that we see around us.  We could build incredible things, but much of the modern construction today has only one redeeming quality;  it's temporary.  Buildings like the one pictured above can last for a long time, but will it still be desirable in 20, 30, or 50 years?   More likely it will be gone, and we will have the opportunity to build it right the next time.

Judging from the construction today, we must want disposable buildings, but will we always?  Maybe there were times past where construction was fast and cheap, as it is today.  There were always cheap ways of doing things, mud walls instead of stone for example, and even if stone was the only material, that still doesn't explain ceilings 4 meters high.  Maybe there were disposable buildings of these era's, but they have long sense been disposed, leaving only the grand permanent monuments we see now.  Maybe in ten or twenty years, we will desire houses that are built like stone even if stone itself is not the actual material.

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