Tuesday, December 15, 2015


When I hear people say, “They sure don’t build houses like they used to,.”  I think to myself, “Yeah, and it's a good thing, too.”

Granted, the quality of many items in new homes--doors, paint, hardware, and so on--can’t measure up to that of their vintage counterparts. But when it comes to actual structure and infrastructure, there’s no comparison.

This would never happen to a modern house, because
modern framing systems have shear walls.
Starting at the bottom of things--the foundation--modern houses are already way ahead. Prewar foundations had little or no reinforcing steel in them, which is why sticking doors and crooked floors are so common in vintage houses. Thanks to increasingly stringent codes for earthquake safety, modern foundations contain plenty of reinforcement., which has the added benefit of keeping them level and in one piece. 

Building codes also require today’s houses to be much more robustly framed than their predecessors, many of which had shockingly weak structures. Victorian houses, for instance, typically sat atop tottering “cripple walls” that made these already spindly and top-heavy structures even more susceptible to earthquakes, hurricanes, and flood damage. Today, the use of inexpensive metal framing connectors such as joist hangers and tie  straps produce far stronger houses at a very modest additional cost.

Galvanized water pipe was used
through the 1950s. This is what
most of it now looks like inside.
Modern building infrastructure such as plumbing, heating, and electrical systems are also leagues beyond their vintage counterparts. Take plumbing systems, for example--prewar homes typically used rust- and occlusion-prone galvanized steel water piping. Most modern plumbing systems, on the other hand, use durable, trouble-free copper. 

Likewise, houses predating 1940 or so employed knob-and-tube wiring systems with cloth-insulated wires that were embrittled by heat and attractive to rodents. Worse, these systems were protected by simple plug fuses that could be (and often were) circumvented by clueless owners--the infamous “penny in the fusebox” trick that led to many an electrical fire. 

Knob-and tube wiring like this was common from the
1900s until World War II. As you can see,
a lot of it is an accident waiting to happen.
Modern home electrical systems, on the other hand, use circuit breakers that can’t be tampered with. They also provide ample electrical capacity and plenty of outlets, doing away with the tangles of dangerous extension cords so ubiquitous in old houses. 
And speaking of fires, it’s no accident that fewer deadly fires occur in newer homes than in older ones. Rather, it’s because today’s building codes require interlinked smoke detectors, and many codes now also require fire sprinklers as well. Together, these improvements have dramatically reduced the incidence of fatal house fires.

These old furnaces were cool to look at, but
were dismally inefficient. They can't hold
a candle to today's modern forced air units.
Lastly, and perhaps most apparent to us in day to day life, new houses are far and away more comfortable and energy efficient than their old-time predecessors. Although we like to think of homes from the “good old days” as being warm and snug,  most lacked wall and attic insulation to conserve heat and instead relied on huge, wasteful gas furnaces to keep them warm. 

Thanks to modern energy efficiency standards, however, gone are the days of huge furnaces that lost over half of their heat energy up the chimney or by radiation from poorly-insulated ductwork. Today’s high-efficency furnaces, coupled with other features such as mandatory floor, wall, and ceiling insulation, mean modern houses are many times more energy-efficient than grandma’s cottage was.
Given all these improvements, next time you hear someone say, “They don’t build houses like they used to,” tell them they’re absolutely right.

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