Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Stupid Homes and Waste

Well, my last post was sort of an indulgence. I get excited by small homes, rural living, sustainable building, and so forth. Maybe most of my readers don't care about any of that, but I put it out there anyways. I'm not sure how I'll end up living, in what sort of home; I just know that I don't want to live in anything they're building nowadays. At least here in Florida, all the houses are these squatty, bunker-like homes. I know some of it down here has to do with hurricanes, building codes require certain things and these concrete buildings sure won't blow away. But I know these sorts of homes are being built elsewhere. I remember seeing a picture of a home on a news article about foreclosures; I said to myself, ah, an article about the Florida housing market, then read the caption. The home was actually in Las Vegas. I think it may now be the predominant "style" in America; style is in quotes because these homes have no style, no character.

Even the higher end homes are still made this same cheap way. You'd expect quality in a $400,000 home, but it is not so, it's still concrete blocks, the cheap looking knock-down finish inside and out, walls not square or straight, just plain cheap. They dress them up a bit with things like crown moulding, entryway columns, and other various "adornments" but the materials these adornments are made with are cheap. Anyways, they are all variations on the same theme, and all end up looking pretty much the same.

Now, uniformity is not the worst thing in the world, and of course, as they say, there's no accounting for taste. Who am I to declare them inherently ugly? Of course I'm reminded of Pete Seeger's song "Little Boxes" every time I think about this, but I say people get what they deserve, and they can have it. They want big, grand homes for cheap, and that's what they've gotten.

But this way of building is so unsustainable. Construction waste makes up about 33% of landfill trash (in 1998, can't find anything recent, but given the boom, must be worse), and I can speak from experience. When we go into a house to renovate it, the first thing is to do a "trash out." This is largely to empty all the garbage the former occupants left behind (you'd be amazed at how much people leave), and also to tear out whatever's being removed or replaced: cabinets, doors, fences, tile, carpet, on one occasion a wall. Of course, if compressed, removing the big empty spaces in the non-optimally loaded dumpsters, there's actually less, but still, it's a lot.

In addition to the above, often enough to fill up one or two 20yd dumpsters; over the course of the job we create more waste, necessitating more dumpster space. Example: the other day we were putting new casing on the doorways throughout the house, that is, the decorative wood moulding around the door frame. I'd cut the two upright pieces from a single stick of casing, which I think was 14 ft; the leftover piece was close but still too short to use as the top piece, and was discarded. We ended up throwing 3 or 4 sticks-worth away; hard to say, I didn't lay them end to end to measure on my way to the dumpster.

What are you supposed to do with that? Surely there is a better way to use it. Perhaps as part of energy production, by buring it. Then again, as it's not real wood but medium density fiberboard, so with the binders plus the white coating, there'd probably be fumes. (I just read that it contains formaldehyde, and the dust should not be inhaled. All the dust I breathe at work has forced me to stop running, as it hurts my lungs too much; now I find out I'm upping my chance for cancer. Fuck my life). But why not make them long enough to accomodate standard door sizes? That way for most uses (not sliding doors or double doors, but most uses), there's less waste. What about recycling? We throw out lots of glass, plastic, and cardboard; and wood that can be chipped or otherwise used somehow, even if it is downcycling.

I especially hate the garage in front, showcasing blankness
The insanity of our car culture strikes again.
Much of all the other stuff we throw out is still perfectly good, often it simply doesn't match the standard design the new owner, in my remodelling work generally a realty group, prefers. Often we replace the old with new that isn't much better. Cabinets are a great example: contractor grade stuff is ubiquitous in new homes everywhere, even in nicer homes; they're all cheap as hell and won't last ten years probably. And things like fans and lights, which may not be fancy enough, or clean enough, or new enough. We do clean some of them, naturally-- no real estate group wants to waste money. But they inherently waste due to standard construction practices.

So in comes my fascination with the old log cabins and the like. My boss says they didn't build so cheaply up north, but that here in Florida everything's so shoddy. That may be true, I don't know; the big housing boom surely produced junk everywhere it struck, but Florida is the grand-daddy of all the housing boomtowns, so there you have it. Nothing built to last here, not really, not beyond the hurricane-proof concrete exterior walls. (Of course, most of the land here will probably be underwater in a century, so maybe it's moot). But the point is that building this way is so unsustainable and monstrously wasteful that it sickens me to think about it. Not only is there massive waste in the building phase, but the furnishings and the homes themselves will be garbage far sooner than is right. We might as well just throw the whole house into the landfill from the get-go and be done with it.

In addition to that, little of the material used is local or sustainable. Concrete uses lots of fuel and pollution to make, and must be transported. Native cultures built with what was around: down here they'd have wood frame huts with palm-thached roofs, probably. So a log or wood frame home, or a cob home, or a straw-bale home, or brick, or stone, these make sense. Depends on where you live. Cob wouldn't work here because the clay would have to be imported, same with stone. Wood homes are less practical in the western deserts, where adobe would be the better material. Sod homes were common on the prairies once, for obvious reasons.

I would add to this Thoreau's critique on ornaments on houses in this section from the Economy chapter of Walden (about halfway down the page). Who needs all this crown moulding and silly columns? This annotation from the linked site says:
Thoreau disagrees with the idea of making the ornaments have "a core of truth" because he sees no value in the ornaments. To him, a beautiful building is not one with a lot of fancy embellishments but one that has been designed from the foundation up to fit its purpose. True beauty comes from function rather than from ornamentation.
...and that makes a lot of sense to me. Indeed, the Economy chapter is the best of the book, in my opinion; it blew my mind so much that for a long time I never read past that, it just rocked my world. But this is how we need to be thinking about things, if we want to start moving towards a sustainable, sensible way of life.


  1. I have always found houses with the garage in front, streetside, ugly. In the old days, the stable, or the garage, was around back on an alley. The house in your photo might be almost pretty without the garage, although with the fancy windows and columns, it kind of looks like a drive-through branch of a bank. At least it has a little space around it, albeit pointless lawn; in Hawaii, it's rare to find a house with breathing room. (Unless you want to pay a few million.)

  2. To each their own, but I think the house is ugly, I hate the style. There's no porch, for one. For two, there's that idiotic little arch thing on the left, where a window should be. Instead you get this pointless arch to try to gloss over the dead space in the design. It rings false. Third, the quality issues I mentioned in the post almost certainly also apply to this one. Forth, it might be an alright looking house if it didn't look like a clone of every other house down here. This is admittedly a better looking one than many, but still.

    I didn't even want to bring up the lawn thing again, haha.

  3. I thought that little dead arch was where the ATM would go....