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Face the Future: It’s time to stop looking backward for construction materials and methods.

Residential Architect Magazine, September 2004

By Michael Mcdonough, AIA

Nostalgia is a thing of the future,” say the Irish. Nostalgia for a nonexistent golden age of building looms large among a considerable segment of the construction industry as we move into the 21st century. And it is a diverse segment, too: old-timers who wax poetical about the way things were “in the day”; youngsters starting-outwith-stars-in-their-eyes who sense something is awry; bed-and-breakfast charm consumers; cut-stone garden wall lovers—they all chime in. “Everything was better then,” and “good old-fashioned this and that,” and “they just don’t make ‘em the way they used to.”

And, fair enough, in many ways they are not wrong. It needs to be noted right up front that a lot of really bad building exists out there. Hit-and-run contractors, shoddy work that falls apart beginning the moment the warranty runs out, poor labor practices, repetitive “out-of-the-drawer” designs, products that over-promise and under-deliver, building materials so bad that building codes had to be dumbed down so they could be installed, and so forth ad nauseam.

And believe me, I know. I watched my grandfather mix paint from linseed oil and pigment. I watched my father excavate, frame, plumb, wire, heat, roof, and finish houses. Heck, I started assisting the old man as a cabinetmaker when I was 12. And that was before I went to architecture school and traveled the world looking longingly at buildings that had stood the test of time for thousands of years. Ah, the masonry plinth block, the old-growth heartwood cove siding, the hand-forged hardware, the slate roofing tiles, the ink-on-linen plans … I know, dear reader, I know.

So, in many ways, the nostalgic among us are not wrong. But they are wrong in a fundamental way that ultimately counts the most. Consider: Nostalgia, and that is what we are getting at here, is a longing for the past characterized by sentimentality, wishful thinking, and the desire for something that can never be recovered. And therein lies the rub: It isn’t going to happen and wouldn’t work if it did. And worse, it prevents us from tracking a course that can happen and will work. It is both a grand illusion and a time-wasting distraction because real solutions do exist.

The Not-So-Charming House

“Nests.” That is what the old-timer-who-has-constructed-and-reconstructed-buildings-for-well-over-30-years was saying. The old Dutch Colonial farmhouses of Ulster County, N.Y., were the subject of our conversation. Beautiful things—drywall foundations; timber trusses; lower stories of wide-mortar, semi-coursed, site-sourced fieldstone; upper stories of hand-cut clapboards; and handmade windows throughout. The doors were solid plank with hardware from the blacksmith down the road. The fireplaces were stone with oak mantle-trees and bluestone hearthstones. These beauties date from more than 200 years ago and are the result of homegrown inventiveness; no precedent exists for them in Europe. They are literally a product of this particular land (the stone is unique to Ulster County) and its bounty. These are the houses on postcards, the country inns, rich men’s weekend homes, and three-star restaurants. To me, they seem a wonderful legacy. But my guy, who, it must also be noted, has lived in one of the things his entire life, calls them “nests.”

The subject came up when we were discussing how old houses had 10 times more air infiltration than new houses and how this was, in some ways, a real benefit. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “You get in there and you have rotting beams, blown-out footings, rats, bats, squirrels, mice, ants, termites, and spiders. Spiders like to make their webs where there’s moving air, and in those old places there’s moving air everywhere. At least the spiders eat some of the wasps. The fireplaces were so poorly built that they filled the places with smoke, which is a carcinogen, and they created creosote that led to chimney fires, which burned the houses down.

And the fireplaces had to be big because the places had no insulation, and the windows rattled around in their frames. The wells were hand dug, rarely more than 35 feet, and so were full of runoff from the fields and forests. That’s why they drank wine and beer; it didn’t have bear fecal matter (he didn’t actually say ‘fecal matter’) in it. Then there’s the mold and mildew.”

OK, he was a bit cranky, but I had to respect his experience. He had actually gotten in there and done the heavy lifting. In living in and rebuilding the things, he had learned where the battlelines were drawn; he had crossed them and taken fire. Mr. “Cranky-But-Correct” went on a bit longer. “Even with the 20th-century ‘improvements,’ the aluminum wiring was a fire hazard, the potable water supply plumbing was soldered with lead, and the waste lines were hand-tamped with oakum and lead. The paint had lead in it.” (I do recall my grandfather adding lead to the oil and pigment.) “At one point, every tree in Ulster County was cut down, streams diverted, polluted, and filled with turbidity and runoff, fish killed off, animal species made extinct. You aren’t seeing the whole picture.”

The Whole Truth

His point (and my point here)? Everything has good and bad in it, and to imagine that there really was a golden age of building is to look at history through rose-tinted glasses. Let us not forget that those buildings that we long for required the clear-cutting of ancient forests and blowing up of stone ridges, creating vast amounts of air, water, and ground pollution, and tolerating tremendous social and economic disparities. It is a little like the Darwinian view of nature. From far away it looks serene, but up close it can be pretty savage.

Pull the lens back and the big picture here reveals that, sure, there were wonderful things in times past: great building traditions, a level of care, a sense that things passed from one generation to another were worth preserving, extraordinary materials and techniques, structures that stood the test of time. Whatever you can say about those old farmhouses—“nest” or “best”—they are still standing. But almost everything around them was taken in their making, and a lot of what they offered raises human health and environmental issues that are still with us today.

If we tried today to frame a house the “good old-fashioned way” (one builder I know calls this, lovingly, “organic framing”) we would have to build it with the fast- and forced-growth lumber that looks more like airplane propellers than 2×4s about six hours after it is installed. Either that or log the few remaining acres of old-growth temperate rain-forest that are left. The square-edge diagonal board sheathing that seems so fabulous in memory is now grown so fast and harvested so young it is sapwood all the way through. Its “olde” butt joints would have no shear strength beyond the nails (they never did), so these nostalgically framed houses would torque and twist, admitting water and moisture until they racked, rotted, and collapsed. (Hence the phrase “goes to rack and ruin.”)

Stone walls are now so expensive that they can cost about as much as an entire finished building, and to get the stone, who among us wants a noisy, dirty quarry near his fabulous new home? Quick-growth, green-timber-framed houses have to be specially engineered so the building envelope can shrink without admitting outside air, or they will soon be full of cracks and holes (and spiders). You can’t get that out of a drawer, boys, so ante up some engineering fees. Handmade windows have no energy-code ratings, and lead paint causes brain damage in children.

Progress Report

So, are we doomed? No. Between nostalgia and junk, there is a third way: modern engineered products that start with contemporary realities and improve on them. Examples abound. Structural insulated panels—water-foamed insulation with two layers of oriented strand board (OSB)—are a terrific substitute for framed walls: stronger, more quickly erected, better insulated. They were invented right here in the USA, a home-grown technology just waiting to be utilized. And, surprisingly to many, they work as well with traditional building styles and techniques as they do with contemporary ones—their biggest market growth sector is old-fashioned timber-framed houses. OSB, a great plywood substitute, can be got with “perfect for efficient installation” tongue-and-groove joints and guaranteed 90-degree corners, with negligible VOCs and formaldehyde, and 50-year guarantees against spawling in the weather. If you still want to frame in a conventional way, try using engineered framing lumber (perfect corners, no twisting), an exceptionally intelligent use of quick-growth lumber engineered with glues that are functionally fireproof and have zero emissions. Laminated veneer lumber (LVL) can replace old-growth girders, approaching the strength of steel in certain applications.

Autoclaved aerated concrete blocks are as strong as conventional concrete blocks, but they are vapor permeable; mold- and mildew-free; can be cut with a cross-cut carpenter’s saw; are so light they float; and go together with thinset that gives you joints that are stronger than the block itself. Tile isolation membranes prevent cracking and manage moisture so well that you can count on the performance of your tile indoors or outdoors for decades. And we now have non-skid porcelain tile specially made for exterior rain-soaked conditions. Low-VOC paints go on just like the air-polluting, VOC-laden versions and have so little odor and out-gassing that they allow for occupancy within hours of application. Concrete made with recycled slag (a by-product of steel manufacturing) is stronger than a conventional mix, more easily worked, takes color better, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Well-engineered products work.
New technology coexists with the old in a Rumford fireplace that the author specified for a house in New York state. The wood-burning fireplace (rear view, above; front view, left) features an insulated chimney, engineered soapstone backhearth, and computer-cut tile facing.

And don’t forget tweaking the good old stuff that really was good. The Rumford fireplace (invented about 200 years ago) is superior to most traditional and modern designs relative to efficiency and clean burn rate. Rumford Web sites and kits exist, making the somewhat tricky construction a snap. Frank Lloyd Wright’s rubble trench foundations were perfected a hundred years ago. They save concrete and provide perfectly stable support that is well drained and cost effective (just add landscape fabric to prevent silting).

When we look back blindly, we fail to see the wonder in front of us. The solutions are out there, but if we are not open to them we lose the opportunity to learn about them. Respect the past, of course, but treasure the future possibilities. In the U.S. building industry, especially, we often long for the past because we have not yet fully explored future possibilities. The cyclical nature of our industry, the resulting economic pressures, the lack of trained labor—yes, I know, these are all valid concerns. But that Dutch settler who got off his boat and made his way 100 miles into the primitive forests of Ulster County 300 years ago looked around at what he had in the “here and now.” Forced to be progressive, he combined old knowledge and new materials, and he engineered a new building type. This is one of our most wonderful legacies as Americans: Facing the darkness, we respond with open-mindedness, optimism, and invention.

If I am nostalgic for anything, it’s that.

New technology coexists with the old in a Rumford fireplace that the author specified for a house in New York state. The wood-burning fireplace (rear view, above; front view, left) features an insulated chimney, engineered soapstone backhearth, and computer-cut tile facing.

Michael McDonough, AIA, is principal of Michael McDonough Architect in New York City, http://www.michaelmcdonough.com/ He writes about architecture and design for various publications.