Disposable Home


10-26-2006-01When I was young in the Netherlands, we lived in an old farmhouse in Eemnes, and by old I mean from 1607.

When we moved in, in 1970, it had been pretty neglected. The last owner had been a printer, and the wood floor in the kitchen was rudely interrupted by a big slab of concrete in the middle, because the printing press was too heavy for a wood floor. A part of the brick outer wall on one side had a lot of cracks and needed to be redone. The woodwork was in desperate need of a coat of paint, and quite a few of the ancient ceramic roof tiles were broken. We replaced the old roof tiles with still perfectly good, more modern ceramic tiles from my grandparents’ house, which was going to be demolished to make way for a highway. Their house was built around 1920, is my guess.

But that was it. Sure, my parents spent twelve years and most of their money remodeling it exactly to their taste, but the structure was sound. The kitchen cabinets were intact, the granite counter (and  I mean solid granite, two inches thick) was intact, and the plumbing, limited as it was, worked. The beams and planks that formed the ground floor ceiling and the upstairs floor were intact, the beams being about four by eight inches thick. The windows at the front of the house—the south side, which gets the most weather—needed to be replaced, because they hadn’t been painted for a long time, and so the wood had rotted in places.

But in all, this house from 1607, which had undergone some minimal modernizing a few times—a kitchen sink and cabinets around 1900 is my guess; a sleeker (butt-ugly) front door, ceiling panels nailed to the beams, stuff like that in the 1960’s—was definitely not a tear-down.

Houses here in America aren’t built to last even one hundred years. They’re disposable, kind of like paper plates.

Our current house is beautiful. It’s five years old. We have been the only owners from the start. Our children were six and nine when we moved in, and pretty well-behaved. No bouncing off the walls or anything like that.

The builder’s warranty was a whopping one year. In that year the caulking in the shower had to be redone, some cracks where the walls meet had to be touched up, but that was pretty much all.

Now, five years later, the plumbing sounds like a freight train is driving through whenever we use water, and there are cracks in most rooms in places where the walls meet, because the sheetrock is nailed to two-by-fours, which move. For you Dutch readers: a “two-by-four” is a macho way of saying the kind of skinny, wimpy-looking stick that’s the main ingredient in the framing of American homes. Also, the nails are popping out of said sheetrock in places.

When I saw the builders nailing the sheetrock to said sticks at the time, I asked them about it, and they said it was better than screwing, because nails had more give for when the wood shifts. Well, either way the sheetrock is cracking because the wood shifts, and now we also have nails popping out.

The roof, made of what you’d think would be pretty foolproof tar tiles, is leaking above one window, and the railing of the balcony is getting pretty loose. There are also rather big cracks appearing between the stone and the wood around the garage door.

That’s not much you say, but it’s a five-year-old house! I’m not even counting fire alarms that all stop working and the pan under the water heater that needed to be replaced, because, to be fair, they didn’t have water heaters and fire alarms in 1607.

If we didn’t fix minor things like this regularly, the house would fall apart in ten years. It’s perfectly normal to have to replace your roof after about twenty to thirty years. Right now a house from the 1980’s is considered pretty old, and probably in need of lots of repairs.  And if a house from the 1980’s is still decent, it’s because it’s had some major renovations.

I love our house. We have the best view in the world from our living room and the master bedroom, and I would love to live here forever. Forever being my remaining lifespan.  Maybe another thirty years if I’m very lucky and I start to work out for real.

And if the house holds up that long.

6 responses to “Disposable Home

  1. That sounds very similar to what they build here, they all have ‘designer kitchens’, an island next to the kitchen cupboards, where you can place a few stools to have breakfast at the end which shows from the living room. It’s all made in grey or beige tinted colours, and stainless steel of course, because that are the colours future buyers will like best. Why talk about buyers when you just get into your new home? Because kiwi’s like to move, and I mean to move a lot. So why make a home to last for years and years on, you will move in a few years anyway!

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    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      I think that’s the reason here, too. People move all over the country, so they don’t need to think further into the future than when they need to sell it down the road. And they can’t help having to move; the country’s so big. But still, it would save a lot of wood and other materials if they made houses to last.

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  2. Your remarks remind me of what my father used to say. He was an architect who practiced in the Netherlands, mostly in het Gooi and in het Eemland, from the 1930s into the early1950s, then moved to British Columbia, where he requalified in 1956. He was critical of the Building Code and of the slapdash approach of contractors in the Victoria area. “Ze bouwen niet voor de toekomst,” he would say, “alles hier is temporary.” I won’t bother translating the Dutch for you; you get the message. He would not have been surprised by your account.

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    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      My dad would turn in his grave, too, if he saw how houses are built here. At least in this house the wiring is in pvc piping, and running along the floor in the wall and then straight up to where the outlet is. Our previous house in the Rio Grande Valley had no pcv piping and the wiring went diagonally and willy nilly from one outlet to another. Most house fires here seem to start with electrical problems. I wonder why?

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  3. mariejacqueline

    Reading this I was just thinking.
    I rent a house from a building society.
    You know this is not uncommon in The Netherlands.
    It is builded about 1980 and I moved in 1986.
    For Dutch quality building you can’t assume it is the best.

    Still better quality it seems than you have in some ways.

    I think it is true that we have a different perception of old, don’t you think?

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