Nov 28, 2023Liked by Addison Del Mastro

Former firefighter here. The concern about balloon construction is real; it does allow for vertical spread of fire. With that method, the outside structural walls go up first, then the floor joists are added, then the interior walls are built - but since they don't go all the way to the exterior walls, there's a gap where fire can climb once it gets to the edge of the unit. If you've seen footage of the Grenfell Tower fire in the UK, it's very similar.

That said, the bigger concern I have in any building is whether it has 1) sprinklers and/or 2) multiple routes of egress. It's true that it's easier for firefighters to contain and extinguish a fire in a modern building with platform floors and drywall, but it's more important for people in residences / businesses to have the fire contained automatically or be able to get out before the firefighters arrive on scene.

Expand full comment

I grew up in and love old houses but wholly agree with this argument.

A distinction that people fail to grasp is that in older housing there is much more variability in quality of construction. For example at one time in life I was part-owner and a resident of an 1890s three-flat in Chicago. It was lovely to look at....and built like crap. During that era thousands of those were thrown up across a city which was bursting at the seams with new immigrant population, and the builders had learned how to cheaply get the brick-and-stone look that felt to people like "solid housing". Underneath the exterior bricks though they cut every corner even by those pre-building-codes standards. Every time we had reason to open up a wall we'd be freshly amazed, in one way or another, that the place hadn't yet burned down or collapsed around us. And retrofitting what was needed always _cost_.

Old houses that were built for upper-class people often turn out to be built at least as well, overall, as most houses are today. Old houses that were built for middle-class or working-class people, do not. And naturally the latter vastly outnumbers the former. Then in either case there are certain modern safety features that were simply not invented yet let alone required.

I still love old houses, to be clear. It's just important to be realistic about the tradeoffs involved.

Expand full comment

I think there is a dimension missing here, and that is the "who" of building. What we love of old buildings, and what we call character, is often the echoes of the person or organization that decided to build it.

Many of the great buildings were built by someone, sometimes with their labor, other times to their needs or dreams. Speculative development at any scale was relatively rare until postwar, and it shows.

It is nearly impossible to build something for yourself any more, whether with your own labor or another's, and it shows. Yes, new buildings, like new cars, are safer, but they are also often cheap in many, many, material (non-material?) ways.

Expand full comment

I think the major problem with the 5-over-1s is that they also end up being so wasteful. They don't so much contribute to neighborhood character as leech off it.

The main advantage of older-style brick-or-stone mixed-use buildings was that they were modular. Businesses could come in and renovate the ground-floor retail for pretty cheaply. A whole building could be gutted without impacting the surrounding ones.

In my neighborhood, the 5-over-1s waste most of their ground-floor space on luxurious lobbies that no one uses. They're trying to create a sense of grandeur where it hasn't truly been earned. These spaces aren't lived-in, they're just building fields of dreams and hoping that people will come.

Moreover, out of the few dozen commercial spaces they DO have, only TWO are in use for retail. A couple more are dedicated to admin offices for the development companies. And the rest are empty, with absurd asking prices.

My problem with the 5-over-1s isn't *just* the aesthetics. It's that they're outgrowths of a top-down ethos that treats this housing crisis as a purely speculative venture: just an opportunity to ask for a higher price at the expense of the actual neighborhoods they're plopped down in. I've only ever seen these places work when they give up on their delusions of grandeur and profit, and simply create space for the neighborhood to make its own decisions about how to use their ground floors.

Expand full comment

One fallacy I have noticed in arguments for traditional (vs. modern/Codified) construction practices is that said arguments treat the costs and value propositions of modern requirements, such as accessibility and fire sprinklers, as immutable.

This, though, is not the case. For instance, the upfront costs of a fire sprinkler system are influenced by auxiliary Code clauses, such as those governing supervision and backflow prevention. Furthermore, the use of complementary construction details, such as an unvented attic, can prevent common failures and thus enhance the value a fire sprinkler system provides without adding substantial costs of their own.

Is there something I am missing with this idea that we can scale modern systems to the constraints of traditional-scale buildings instead of foregoing them altogether?

Expand full comment

I've always been a huge neon sign fan, the older the better. I enjoyed the pictures, thank-you! I've always found the ma and pa food joints superior to the mass food industry. We have ONE, looks like a trailer when you drive by, but the food is amazing!

Expand full comment

Mahalo for this great post!

While I am nostalgic for the older houses that were built here in Hawaii during the heyday of the sugar plantations, I too see the advantages of newer style houses and current safety requirements

The biggest one for me is wheelchair accessibility, especially since a greater proportion the state's population is over 65. Newer housing that includes features such as ramps or wider doorways and hallways can be a great way to help folks who have a hard time finding housing that works for them

Expand full comment

I never fully understood the love of old buildings - cramped, sized for a different era with different methods of cooking and cleaning, underlit, underpowered and often unsafe. Tear down most of the old, and build new would be fine - except as you state we no longer build new at a small scale. Let us figure out a way to balance safe and comfortable with affordable but build new. Build more. Give people space they want and use, and the flexibility to decide whether they want a bigger house or a bigger yard and how they will configure the interior space of the house. But most of all, build more homes.

Expand full comment

Seems like the buildings themselves could outlast the interior of the unit if designed well enough, or at least with modular and replaceable beams. https://sites.google.com/site/theoriginalepcot/project-vs-reality/the-contemporary-resort

"Approximately 500 guest rooms line the outer walls of this building. Room renovation should have been a simple matter of replacing modules when refurbishment was needed; however, it was found that the modules settled and became stuck in place, rendering them irremovable. Most of Disney's Polynesian Resort was built this way also."

An interesting engineering challenge would be to allow the condos to be fully portable by solving the issue that the condos would get stuck. Doesn't seem like anyone has tried to address that issue since the 1960s. https://github.com/hatonthecat/OpenSourceCondo

Also: 3D printed houses: https://github.com/hatonthecat/Post-scarcity and foldable tiny homes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Cdqs2Q1Vis

Expand full comment