I’ll blow your house down

Posted in Society, Travel at 18:05 by RjZ

Germans are quick to mock the construction quality of houses in the United States. Everything is build out of wood and paper, they say, huffing and puffing like they’re considering blowing down our homes. They are cheap and are not built to last, like many things in the states. They’re right, of course. An old house in the U.S. might be less than 30 where in Germany, you wouldn’t suggest your home is old unless it was well over 100.

German homes are built with brick and cement. They are heavy and strong and you need a special drill and nail just to hang a picture on the wall in many places. It’s easy to argue that this is a good thing, but there are many unforeseen downsides!

The houses, most multi-family dwellings, where I lived in Frankfurt were mostly new, by German standards, built in the 50’s after the war. Back then, few people had a car and so the streets are narrow and the houses cozy up to one another in a friendly way. Of course, there is absolutely no parking anywhere now, and many of the roads have been converted to one way streets just to free up a bit of on-street parking. Razing these homes would be costly and sad, but is ‘built to last’ really such a good idea?

As their standard of living has increased, Germans prefer bigger homes too. So they haves settle down elsewhere. With an excellent train system, many choose to build in one of the suburbs surrounding the metro area. Most will be able to find space, but they’ll need much more money than homes in the United States. Of course, you get what you pay for: they will be getting a master architect and a custom home which will cost at least four times as much. Later if they want to make a change (oops, we didn’t mean to have an extra child! stereos have seven speakers now? where will we put the wires?) tearing down walls or adding them will be extremely expensive.

Meanwhile, I just completed a project to replace all the windows in my home with energy efficient versions. I also tore out a small window and replaced it with a huge bay window to let in more light than the original designers (way back in the eighties) thought was necessary. The project was a success, and I was very happy with my contractors (if you need windows, talk to these guys!) Contractors aren’t always so good in the U.S. Smart homeowners will watch them like a hawk, recognizing that the faster they get things done, the better it is for them, even if it isn’t better for you! In Germany, meanwhile, a contractor will have to be a certified meister with years of training and proof he knows what he’s doing. Sounds great doesn’t it? Well, not if you don’t actually want the very best. Perhaps it’s garage windows, and you don’t care all that much. Maybe you really need windows, but don’t have enough cash for the best right now. This system, a hand-me-down from the age of guilds, ensures top-quality and fair wages for the services, but dramatically limits choice. There simply is no low-end, even when you do prefer it.

Todai-ji: The worlds largest wooden structure in Nara, Japan, built in 1709

Todai-ji: The worlds largest wooden structure in Nara, Japan, built in 1709

The Japanese build most everything out of wood and paper, but their buildings seem to last. Still, German construction probably does last much longer, but it’s quality that is paid for dearly and, really, is lasting so long always such a good idea? Are you so sure that the decisions made today will really make sense in the future?

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