Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
One of the most common questions I get from homeowners is, “Would you buy this home?” Yet, what I hear them say is, “How long will my home last?” They want value, they want safety, and they want it to be maintenance-free. Obviously, they’re all attainable aspects of homeownership – – except for the free part!
During the turn of the 18th century, home builders used basic building techniques learned through trial and error. The building code did not exist. The builder gained a reputation for his prowess through word of mouth and the fact that few of his buildings “fell in” on his clients.
The bar for building an environmentally friendly home was non-existent or, at best, low, and, as a homeowner concerned with safety, the builder’s engineering skills were seldom double-checked by a “real engineer.”
Yet, 230 years later, some homes built with those limited skill sets and even more limited scientific advancements in construction techniques are still standing.
They survived the test of time. They lasted for generations. In the classic sense, they were sustainable.
Today, sustainable construction has a different meaning. In today’s world, building a sustainable home is less focused on standing the test of time. Today, it means lowering an environmental footprint. Sustainable construction means managing climate change and focuses on how the building may promote or help prevent the negative effects on our environment.
What is the likelihood that an average home today will still be standing 230 years from now?
How practical is it to believe that homes built today will truly “last,” and what exactly is the definition of a “sustainably built home?” Shouldn’t the basic definition include standing, at the very least, until our great-grandchild can see and live in it?
This question touches on the evolution of home building techniques and the changing definitions of “sustainable” construction. The longevity of a modern home depends on various factors, one of which is being sustainable, but which “sustainable” are we talking about?
Modern construction often uses engineered materials designed for specific purposes but may not have the long-term durability of traditional materials like stone or hardwood. Yesterday’s home was built with thicker lumber and a hardwood frame, unlike today’s fast-growing soft lumber and chipboard.
While stringent and meaningful, modern building codes, never a concern by our pioneer brothers and sisters, are designed more for safety and efficiency than longevity.
We should also consider maintenance. Well-maintained homes are more likely to stand the test of time. For homeowners, modern buildings often require more complex maintenance due to the various systems and materials used. If we use a metric like home maintenance to help define sustainability, homeowners bear the responsibility, not the builder. Climate change and environmental factors can and often do affect a building’s longevity. Again – that can’t be attributed to the builder.
Given these few variables, it’s difficult to predict whether an average modern home will last 230 years. However, it’s generally believed that homes built today, if maintained properly, could last a century or more.
The 230-year mark might be a stretch for many modern homes unless they’re specifically designed for what I call “extreme” longevity.
From a practical standpoint, aiming for such long-lasting homes may only sometimes be feasible or desirable due to cost, technology, and our changing needs.
Building a home to last for centuries is more expensive upfront, and as our technology evolves, the home’s systems will need to be updated. The needs and lifestyles of residents change over time. Those changes require modifications that often compromise its original structural integrity.
Today, a “sustainably built home” often refers to environmental sustainability, not longevity. A sustainably built home encourages using renewable energy, high-efficiency appliances, and special insulation. It can include using recycled or renewable materials, low-flow fixtures, rainwater harvesting, and materials that don’t off-gas harmful chemicals.
Sustainable construction also includes the environmental impact of the construction process itself.
While the homes built 230 years ago were sustainable in terms of their longevity, today’s focus has shifted toward the environmental impacts of the home building industry.
Building age and environmental impact are valid concerns that help define sustainability, but they serve different purposes and are measured by different standards.
Throw Them Under The Bus
Some inspectors quickly throw a builder “under the bus” because of their opinions about sustainability. Is that fair, considering today’s home isn’t meant to last more than a few years? Why blame a contractor? Aren’t builders simply meeting the demands of the “times?”
The question emphasizes the ethical and practical considerations that both home builders and homeowners face.
The dynamics between builders, inspectors, and homeowners can be complex.
What measure should the average homeowner use to gauge the build? If not measured by the life cycle of the building, by what standard does a homeowner judge the builder? Are inspectors being too critical? How much control does a builder actually have? If we define sustainable construction by the modern-day term, builders should be focused on how their product impacts their surroundings. If we use longevity – there is more focus on the homeowner.
Builders often operate under tight budgets and timelines, and without profit, the built environment is a totally different picture. While longevity is admirable, some projects won’t be economically feasible to focus on offering advanced products. Builders respond to market demands and naturally focus on those aspects.
Consumers may prioritize features, location, or price over longevity; from my observation, that is true. Location is still king, and the price paid for a home becomes a limiting factor in terms of how many birthdays a building can survive.
Builders are required to meet current building codes, and those standards are primarily focused on safety and efficiency rather than longevity. Code officials quickly admit they’re responsible for trip hazards, not longevity.
While it may not be fair to “condemn” a builder for not focusing on longevity, there is an ethical argument to be made for building homes that are durable and long-lasting, especially if the builder markets their homes as such.
What are builders doing to build a better home? Homeowners should pay attention to the types of materials used. High-quality materials often indicate a better build. Attention to detail, quality of finishes, and craftsmanship are indicators of a builder’s skill and commitment to quality.
Given the modern focus on sustainability, energy-efficient features can be a good measure of a home’s quality and the builder’s forward-thinking approach. A builder who offers a comprehensive warranty and stands by it is often more reliable than one who doesn’t.
Reviews, whether word of mouth or digital, can help a homeowner choose a contractor. Testimonials can provide valuable insights into a builder’s quality and reliability. All of these ideas can help a potential homeowner find a builder.
Home inspectors must provide an unbiased assessment of a home’s condition. It’s easy for the inspector to cop an attitude about a new building, and while it may seem like they are throwing the builder “under the bus,” an inspector’s primary responsibility is to the client. After all, they’re paying the inspector, but more so, they’re considering purchasing the home.
Inspectors identify issues affecting the home’s safety and functionality. Both of those factors can, in turn, affect value. It’s a balancing act between what’s ideal and what’s practical.
While longevity is an important factor, it’s only one of many that builders and homeowners must consider during purchase. The key should be transparent communication between all parties involved so that homeowners can make informed decisions based on their priorities, whether longevity, sustainability, or other factors drive their motivations.
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