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Set In Brick
Is quality elitist?
A couple of weeks ago, for no particular reason, I was thinking about brick buildings, and a fellow who a friend pointed me to who builds very solid, high-quality structural brick buildings. He wrote this piece in Strong Towns, which explains his company, Building Culture, and his philosophy.
And while I was thinking about that, I saw this bit on Twitter:
There are a lot of accounts on Twitter which post pictures of beautiful old buildings or urban streetscapes, and there’s sometimes a real or imagined political subtext to this: basically, reactionary conservatism that views beauty as a lost virtue, modernism as a plot, etc. The Twitter nonsense machine turns this into “beautiful buildings are fascist” or whatever.
I don’t mean to get into any of this. The question of beauty in architecture is at least to some extent subjective. But quality is more objective. And when I look at stately old houses or civic buildings, I don’t think beauty as much as I think elegance, which isn’t quite the same idea.
And I also think about the whole question of whether this a rarefied, elitist concern. The people who promote, say, solid-brick architecture, or genuinely New Urbanist developments, view it as giving ordinary people both beauty and quality again. But, of course, the prices for these houses are pretty much going to be in the millions. And so it can look a little bit like those home or food magazines with impossibly beautiful settings and bountiful piles of exquisite ingredients—luxury made to look and feel achievable. Sorry honey, I got distracted reading this magazine, I’ll order the Pizza Hut now.
In other words, many people will say, that all sounds very nice. Now what does it cost?
And it does sound very nice. Here are a couple of excerpts from the Strong Towns piece:
I thought I was still a decade away from being capable of building a house on my own. And I certainly didn’t think I could be a designer—after all, that was for the professionals, right? People spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn how to do that. Besides, I couldn’t draw, never went to architecture school, and didn’t consider myself artistic. And yet, one year later I was building four houses in a pocket neighborhood I had designed and developed with a fellow builder.
In many ways, I think my lack of prior experience was a gift. I had inadvertently skipped the indoctrination of academia and the norms surrounding architecture, design, and construction, and came to the profession without presupposition or prejudice. It was in that naivety I was introduced to traditional building methods and materials, namely mass-wall brick masonry and timber framing. Aside from an incredibly talented mentor, I taught myself design by looking at buildings I found beautiful, and spending thousands of hours drawing houses in SketchUp.
This new paradigm resulted in fast and affordable housing that fueled the American Dream of home ownership. Machines replaced humans as the primary workforce. As America grew wealthier and could afford the beauty and durability of those traditional methods and materials, rather than building better houses, we built bigger houses. With this erosion of the human touch, traditional building knowledge and skills, such as mass-wall masonry, all but disappeared. The craftsman officially became an endangered species.
It’s not about a particular style or replicating some classical Order precisely, but about the continuation of the classical tradition, which ultimately is a value system. A system that values beauty, harmony, stewardship, and celebrates the infinitely creative human spirit. Those values bridge across all places, cultures, and economic statuses, yet express themselves uniquely in each, because humans are wonderfully diverse and enormously inventive.
This is populist in a certain way, in a good way, in that it views the built environment as something we participate in, not something we passively consume. It wants to turn buildings from products into works of art and craftsmanship. And it wants to open up building and development to the little guy.
It all makes me think of the farmers market vs. Applebee’s argument: the idea that cheap, everyday food is for the “common man” while a farmers market is hoity-toity. Walmart is for normal people, solid well-crafted stuff isn’t. How did we get to a point where the simplest, purest things are only for the rich?
But while this is kind of true in the immediate economic sense, some people seem to take it further—to think that it is also true in some objective sense. That the fact that these things are expensive indicates that they are elitist. But they’re expensive not because they’re elitist but because they’re desirable. Prices are market signals, not metaphysical truths. “Nobody can afford that, don’t build it” feels intuitive in a sense, but it’s exactly wrong.
While there certainly is a realm of elitist food and consumer goods. I’d put solid, intentionally well-crafted homes in the same bucket as Amish furniture, not as caviar and gold flakes. Expensive but humble. The point of this stuff isn’t simply to make money (for the producer) or to show off (for the consumer). It’s to use old, tested methods, high quality raw ingredients, and make money as a side effect of doing a good job.
Look—labor in the United States today is simply far more expensive than it was in the 1800s, when most of our beautiful, solid buildings were built. That’s true. But on the other hand, the greatest cost in construction, at least in growing or high-demand cities or metro areas, is land. Even if you build the highest-quality building, the materials and construction are still probably less than half of the whole cost.
You can’t do much about land costs, but you can reduce the cost (in dollars and time) of permitting, zoning, and all the other things that gum up the process of doing things—especially for the small, innovative builders. And if more builders went for quality, and we carefully deregulated, a lot more people could enjoy what feels, right now, like luxury.
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