The Unburdening of America

window in stone wall in Bourton-On-The-Water in the south of England

   I was invited to speak at the Southern Living Custom Builders’ annual conference in Birmingham this past weekend. I promised myself years ago that I would never give the same address twice, but that I would always develop some new material each time I spoke. One of the new ideas presented to the builders Saturday is something I call “the Unburdening of America.”

   For nearly all of human history, people have valued things for their durability, and for their other lasting values. Tools might be passed down for two or three generations of a craftsman’s family. Buildings were built for the ages. Recently, all that has changed. The idea of “planned obsolescence” was dreamed up by industrialists in the mid-1920s. Manufacturing according to the principle of planned obsolescence meant that you made things that were designed to wear out in a certain length of time so that someone would have to discard it and buy another. This guaranteed a steady stream of customers, so long as your product worked well while it lasted.

   Planned obsolescence infiltrated architecture, too... I recall sitting in a building technology class in architecture school where the professor said “you need to make your buildings last at least as long as the mortgage, otherwise your clients will be really upset when the building falls down and they’re still making payments on it.” What an absurd proposition!!! Yet that’s exactly the way we’ve been building since World War II. If you doubt it, look at how quickly the 1960s ranch houses are being demolished.

   This might sound good for the builders and good for the industrialists, but planned obsolescence condemns each generation of Americans to build their own homes. So we all have to mortgage our futures at least 30 years out, then we’re sentenced to filling up our credit cards and credit lines buying stuff that may not even last long enough for us to pay off the credit card! This burden has become too great for America to bear. The time has come to lay the burden down!

   How can we do this? The Meltdown may take care of one huge hurdle. When people make lots of money, a perverse thing happens. You would think that with more money, people would demand better stuff. But when prosperity abounds, the necessity of thinking long-term decreases.

   When times are tough, however, the thought of replacing a tool, a piece of furniture, or whatever on a frequent basis is really frightening... we simply cannot afford to do that. So I believe that the Meltdown will begin to cause people to think long-term again, and to begin to value enduring things.

   Purchasing enduring things after a long run of buying throwaway stuff is really difficult because the enduring stuff costs more money when you buy it, even though its life cycle cost is much lower. Take buildings, for example. A 1,000-year building probably costs 50% more than a 35-year building... but over the 1,000 years, we and our descendants only have to build it once, whereas we and our descendants have to build 30 or so of the 35-year buildings. So the life-cycle cost of going the short-term route is twenty times higher than going the long-term route.

   “But wait,” you say, “I’ll only be living in that house seven years! And I’ll only be alive another 30 or 40 years! Why should I possibly care about a 1,000-year building?” Good questions. There are several answers. First, when you sell that house in seven years, which do you think will produce a better return: selling a house with 20% (7 years/35 years) of its useful life drained since you bought it, or a house that’s built for the ages? Next, a building designed to last several centuries naturally has much lower maintenance than one that won’t even last as long as your lifetime. Which would you rather maintain? And doesn’t it mean something to you to ease the burden on your children, their children, and those that come after then? Of course it does. But the very same people who go to great lengths with their estate planners usually have not, at least until now, thought of the implications upon their children and grandchildren of buying things and building buildings that do not endure. But now, it really is time to remove that heavy burden from their shoulders. Let’s do the right thing, and do the sensible thing, and start buying and building to last!

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Monday, February 23, 2009 - 09:05 PM

Andrew Watt

   This is history in action, in a sense.

   The temple to Athena called the Parthenon in Athens was used as both a temple and the city treasury in the time of Athens' golden age.  Later, the Christians turned it into a church dedicated to Mary Mother of Christ.  Still later it was a mosque in the days of the Ottoman Empire.  As it became more run-down, the Ottomans used it as a gunpowder magazine for their fortress on the Acropolis.  When the Venetians bombed it in the 1500s, and blew it up, the remaining ruins were used as a shelter for a new palace and another mosque.  It was only in the 19th century — more than 2400 years after its construction — that it was put into service as a spiritually-uplifting ruin, after a long series of uses that were never intended by the original builders

Friday, March 6, 2009 - 03:50 PM

Steve Mouzon

Andrew, that's a classic example... thanks for making the point! It's so easy to assume that what a building is today is what it's always been, but a building that lasts 1,000 years may only serve its original program for 3-5% of its life... making building programs one of the most over-rated things in architecture today! The focus should be on building an excellent building, not on the minutia of a program that may change in some ways even before construction is complete.

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