Tuesday, December 21, 2010


It’s no secret that the quality of many building products has declined over the past fifty years.  Lots of items aren’t expected to do much more than make a brief stop at your house on their way to the landfill.    Yet, miracle of miracles, a few products are actually better today than they’ve ever been.  Here are a sampling:

•  Heating systems.  Few things in the home have improved as much as heating systems.  As late as the 1970s, the typical furnace still had a dismal thermal efficiency of around seventy percent--in other words, thirty cents of every energy dollar went to waste up the chimney flue.  
Then came the nationwide energy crisis of 1978.  Beginning with California, a number of state governments wisely responded with legislation requiring all new homes and additions to meet a minimal standard of energy efficiency.  Faced with this mandate, moribund furnace manufacturers had the choice of finally getting off their duffs or losing sales to more innovative competitors.  They got off their duffs.

Hence, today’s furnaces are available with efficiencies of 96% and better, and many burn so efficiently they don’t require a conventional flue at all.   Add to that programmable thermostats and better duct insulation, and you’ve got a spectacular reduction in the energy it takes to heat your home.

•  Windows.  Mainly because they were cheap and easy to install, aluminum windows had become the standard of the building industry by the late 1950s.  Some standard:  they were flimsy, drafty, and had insulating value that was little better than a hole in the wall.  The new energy efficiency standards worked their coercive magic on window manufacturers as well.  In a mad scramble to meet the legislative mandates appearing in more and more states, first came double-pane glass, then better weatherstripping, thermal breaks, and many other measures meant to reduce heat loss..  

In fairness, window manufacturers have run with the ball on their own since then.  They’ve introduced new energy-efficient windows of clad wood, vinyl, and fiber glass, not to mention a huge range of design and finish choices.  The result is that U.S.-made windows can, for the first time, go head to head with any on the world market.   

•  Cabinetwork.  The widespread adoption of factory-made modular cabinets during the 1980s finally signalled the arrival of mass production to a trade that’s been a longtime bastion of custom craftsmanship.  But whereas the production line often makes for sloppier products, in this case it’s actually proved beneficial to consumers, and not just in lowering prices.  Modular cabinets can also be mixed and matched like a kit of parts, allowing homeowners to design their own kitchens and baths--although given some of the results I’ve seen, that isn’t always a good thing.   

Mass production has also brought a dramatic improvement in finish quality.  Today’s better modular cabinets have more uniform and durable finishes than many reasonably-priced cabinet shops can offer for the same price.  This is not to minimize the value of custom cabinets, which will always hold the premium place on the market, but rather to point out that the mid-priced lines of modular cabinets now offer many of the benefits of high-quality custom work.

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