The Real Crimes in Construction: A Response to Petroski

Construction Workers Looking at Roof
Daniel N. White

I’m always glad to read anything Henry Petroski writes and I enjoyed his recent New York Times article on the decline of craftsmanship in building, but my feeling is that he dumbed things down some for this op-ed.  That’s easy enough to do, given the difficulty of getting technical information across in an op-ed length piece, and let’s face it, NYT readers generally aren’t the most technically inclined folks out there*.  I’ve read a couple of his books–they are very good and I recommend them–but he could have done better with this piece.

Things aren’t quite as simple as he says in regards to residential construction.  Many of his complaints relating to his house revolve around wood products then versus now.  Wood products aren’t as good as they used to be because we’ve used up most of the good stuff already and the third and fourth growth trees and the tree plantation stuff just isn’t as good.  But the downsizing of two-by-fours is fine by me because they just don’t, structurally, need to be a full two by four inches in dimension.  The shrinkage to 1 ½” by 3 ½” means that we get more of them per tree, which is good for conservation.

Petroski’s complaints about siding highlights where things now are in regards to timber products in residential construction.  His cedar siding is nice looking and durable but today’s Hardiplank and Hardipanel are great materials that will outlast his cedar siding and are more fire-resistant and require less painting.  Modern, engineered, wood products are desirable alternatives, provided that the giant corporations making them don’t cheat and cut corners, which happens more than I like to see, and mostly goes unreported and unpunished.

Most engineered wood products are from giant corporations.  When corporate cheating on materials happens in a big way, as was the case with Louisiana-Pacific’s siding, the legal punishments meted out to the giant corporations do not adequately recompense the afflicted homeowners and aren’t big enough to deter future misbehavior.  That isn’t a craftsmanship issue so much as it is a morals issue, or the lack of morals in corporate America.  And it is also an indictment of our legal system and its systemic failure and inability to deter corporate malefactors and recompense the small parties injured.

Other material improvements also affect home production in a positive way.  Was Petroski’s house insulated with rockwool insulation?   Or cellulose?  If so, they are now dead and require replacement with modern fiberglass, which will last a couple of centuries and with better R-value too.  Modern windows make a huge difference in heating and cooling costs and I’ll bet they’ll outlast their old-timey predecessors. Petroski the engineer overlooks advances like these.  Much of what he and others comment or complain about in modern construction versus older construction is explained by how in the past wood materials were cheap and architectural engineering was weak and people put more materials in because they didn’t know better.

Speaking of architectural engineering there’s also been some really useful improvements there.  Prefabricated roof and floor trusses are stronger and last longer than site-built ones.  (Again, see my earlier caveat about engineered wood products.)   The use of steel reinforcements–the Simpson products–yields a much stronger and storm-resistant building.

The real crimes in construction take place in the initial architecture.  Corners get cut to peel a few dollars, percentagewise, out of initial materials cost, because every nickel saved on materials is pure profit to the builder.  Slabs–we do a criminal job of slab foundations in order to save a couple of thousand dollars of steel rebar and a few hundreds of dollars in extra concrete and concrete cement content.  Every residential exterior wall ought to be made with 2×6’s and insulated with R-19 fiberglass, but that adds another couple of thousand dollars to the cost.

Sheetrock is a fine material for interior walls, and isn’t a fire and bug hazard like Petroski’s knotty pine paneling,  but you are smart to use firerock, 5/8″ thick, which is structurally superior and doesn’t cost more than an extra few hundred dollars per house.  Things like this rarely get done unless you go to a custom builder and custom architect, and that costs more by 15% per square foot at least than giant homebuilder construction.  Generally more like 25%.  The economies of scale and efficiency in the large corporate builders are real, like it or not.

Basically there is no market mechanism to give customers a choice in a new residence for quality.  There could be but there isn’t–new home builders could give potential homeowners a checkoff sheet to allow them to make educated choices, and all the big builder efficiencies would come into play and additional costs would mostly be materials and the 25% cost hit would mostly go away, but that never happens.

Why?  After dealing with both construction and auto repair, it’s my belief that most people in this country have a short-term mentality and if given the choice for better quality wouldn’t take it anyway.  That leaves the rest of us in the years to come stuck with their mistakes which will cost us unnecessary maintenance and repair costs and extra energy costs to heat and cool.  That’s my belief, and dammit I’m not wrong on that one.  I’ve seen it too much all my working life.

Americans have a short-term approach to costs on long-term life items.  This costs us money from unnecessary and preventable economic wastage.  What  sociologists need to ask and investigate is if this short-term thinking means that we don’t believe in a future for ourselves and our progeny.  What does that mean and say about us as a people?  That’s a hard question for all of us.

As far as Petroski’s complaints about decline of craftsmanship, well he’s right there.  But in my case back in 1980 I was a machine operator–not a real machinist–at Cameron Iron Works and I made $11.37 an hour with full benefits and a retirement plan.  There is almost nothing that pays like that today in real dollar terms whether in construction or in most of what remains of US industry.  Training for construction work used to revolve around union apprenticeships, and they’ve all gone away with the war against unions.  Residential construction via giant homebuilders has Taylorized the work to where you just don’t get the chance to learn to be an all-around carpenter.

But the biggest factor is the ugly fact that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys, and that’s the case throughout the skilled trades.  Big business has gone out of their way to de-skill and Taylorize them as much as possible, and shift the worker’s share of the pie upstairs to their offices, and that’s a social issue that Petroski the engineer doesn’t touch.  Nor does his profession, and it ought to.  They are next themselves for this process.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

*I’m always one to give the grey lady a good hard kick when I can.  According to Richard Cook, in his excellent and quite ignored and neglected book on the Challenger disaster, Challenger Revealed, the initial reporting in the NYT on the O-rings in the solid rocket booster failing from the cold weather wrote them up as “Old Rings.”   Gadzooks.

 

3 thoughts on “The Real Crimes in Construction: A Response to Petroski

  1. I did not see the original piece in NYT replied to here, but I am absolutely stunned and astonished that someone would “only just now discover” that a 2 X 4 doesn’t actually measure 2 inches by 4 inches!!! This revelation could only occur to someone who has never, ever in his/her life done any work building anything out of wood!! (By which I mean DIY home projects, of course, not being employed in construction.) Now allow me to say two positive things about today’s lumber products: 1.) I built a house in Vermont ten years ago [well, built it 60% or so before I went broke–couldn’t get a construction loan–and sold at a 60% loss!!] and was very impressed with the floor beams and I-beams (“engineered lumber products”) that came from the Pacific Northwest and Canadian companies; 2.) more recently, in purchasing 8-foot pressure treated boards for landscape construction I was astonished to find they actually measured just over 97 inches long–“more wood than I paid for”!!! An incredible concept!

    • If you bought the boards on a hot day, thermal expansion could account for the extra inch in length. If, on the other hand, you measure the boards on a cold day or evening, you might find them less than 96 inches long, in which case you will have gotten less “wood” than you paid for. The Chinese have a proverb that says, “sheep’s wool comes off a sheep’s back,” by which they mean, “You always pay for what you get.”

      At any rate, you almost certainly got more in the way of materials and workmanship than those unfortunate Iraqis and Afghans who had their countries first bombed into rubble and then “reconstructed” by US corporate carpetbaggers. To paraphrase an old commercial jingle for Pepsodent toothpaste:

      “You’ll wonder where the money went
      If you trust a U.S. President.”

      • In the “good old days” when labor unions were still a mainstay of an economically healthy country, I was a union member working “casual” labor in one of the great steel mills in this country. I did this to augment my post WW II GI bill which I was using to get my graduate degree. My pay? $1.25/hour. That was 1946-47. You may scoff at that pay for a unionized worker but in those days, when our government still passed laws that helped the 99% not the 1%, one could live quite well on that pay.

        The $1.25 was for the ‘unskilled’ labor I had to sell as a part time worker and college student. Skilled operators in the mills earned more based on their skill and their seniority due to the union contract. My younger brother, who wasn’t an agitator like me, also was on the GI bill and management let him operate the big cranes and he made twice as much as me. It helped pay for his medical degree as a pediatric neurologist. I would work a double shift (16 hours) when I could because the steelworkers union negotiated an agreement that payed me double for that second shift.

        You could buy a cool draft beer in the tavern just outside the mill gates for 15 cents and the tavern would cash your check for free. The regular skilled and long time workers earned enough to buy a brick house, near a good school and send their children to top notch universities.

        In the construction trades, as they become unionized in that all too short “golden age” also began receiving merit pay for more skilled jobs like bricklaying, or interior carpentry, etc.

        Today the manual worker is demeaned. They have become an ‘invisible’ part of our country. When was the last time you saw a story on local or national news about a union or worker organizing effort? You only hear about “strikes” because the media can emphasize how they may disrupt your life. But you do see a lot of stories with bankers and top managers of big corporations giving their views on what is “good for the country”.
        Folks, its time for a change.

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