May 24, 2018
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A tale of two houses: Our infrastructure doesn’t have to be built this way

Duke University | BDN
Duke University | BDN
Henry Petroski
By Henry Petroski, Special to the BDN

Thanks to changing jobs and relocating, my wife and I have learned a lot about domestic infrastructure from the variety of houses in which we have lived. But as different as our homes have been from each other, they have shared a common underlying feature — the uniquely American form of construction known as the balloon frame, which relies upon the liberal use of usually two-by-four wooden studs for its structural strength and form.

But the similarities stop there.

About 15 years ago, when our knees no longer enjoyed climbing stairs, we bought a newly remodeled ranch house dating from the early 1950s. Its original construction — in which the studs are much closer to two by four than can be found in a lumber yard today — remains sandwiched between an exterior of brick veneer and an interior of painted drywall. The refinished hardwood floors, although not as level as the day they were laid down, remain solid underfoot.

Among the changes made to the house in its “modernization” was the conversion of a large attached two-car garage into a master-bedroom suite. Its floor is not exposed hardwood but plywood concealed beneath wall-to-wall carpeting, making for a soft and flexible feel underfoot. Materials and methods do change over time, but not always for the better.

A leaky roof was fixed before we moved in, but since then at least a half dozen other leaks have developed. A roofer has advised us that the underlying cause is that the shingles were not installed correctly in the first place.

All the shingles will have to be replaced because some anonymous workmen did not understand or follow proper installation instructions. Infrastructure is only as good as the materials used and their proper use.

To me, the most disappointing aesthetic aspect of the house’s modernization is the quality of workmanship, especially as exhibited in the details. Caulk was used to fill gaps where door frames meet floor and cove molding meets walls. This quick fix for poorly mated joints looked good when the work was fresh, but in 15 years of the house’s contracting in winter and expanding in summer, the once clean and pliant material has become discolored, brittle and cracked.

Recaulking is, of course, an option, but one that might have to be repeated in about 10 years. That does not speak well for the solution to a problem that did not have to exist in the first place.

Repeated maintenance of infrastructure is, of course, to be expected. Cleaning, painting, repair and replacement, and countless other recurring tasks are required to keep a structure — whether a house or a highway bridge — looking good and in good working order. But such efforts can be thwarted from the start by a thoughtless original design, the use of inferior materials, the execution of poor workmanship and indifferent oversight.

The example of our ranch house plays out across the nation and must affect how homeowners view their public infrastructure. We see a decline in quality at home and a similar decline in the quality of our commercial buildings and roads.

Perhaps the primary concern is the bottom line; structures must only survive until they are fully amortized in a company’s budget.

But this need not be the case.

Our summer home in Maine is an example of how infrastructure can be made almost maintenance free. This house also was built in the early 1950s. Its sturdy balloon frame is covered outside with cedar siding and inside with knotty-pine paneling, whose varnished finish looks as good as new. For over 60 years, there has been no need for painting, and the builder’s impeccable workmanship means there are no awkward gaps that have ever needed caulking.

Every part of the house, from kitchen cabinets to window frames, was handmade, including a total of 16 full-size doors to rooms and closets. All but one of these doors works perfectly; the one that does not was compromised when nearby wall studs were cut away to make a master-suite passageway. This door sticks the way many of those in our other house do, but all the rest in the Maine house fit and work near perfectly.

Nothing’s really perfect, of course, and the designer-builder of the Maine house did one thing that confused neighbors and subsequent owners. Instead of a pitched roof that would shed water, snow and ice, he gave his house a flat roof that leaked. This problem was corrected in the 1980s, when the then-owner added a steeply pitched roof.

Unfortunately, in an apparent but misguided attempt to blend the new with the old where they meet at the stairway, inferior materials, mediocre workmanship and poor judgment were employed — and the newer work suffers greatly in comparison with the original.

Infrastructure, whether in the form of a house or a highway, can be constructed properly or improperly. That done right in the first place will last and can provide a model for future modifications and expansions. However, if the model is ignored and newer construction is done without an eye for quality materials and craftsmanship, then our private and public works will surely be on the road to irreversible decline.

Henry Petroski is a professor of civil engineering and of history at Duke University in North Carolina. His most recent book is “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship.” He lives in Arrowsic with his wife, Catherine, whose photographs of their house can be sampled at



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