The common lament misses crucial context about the style trends and building materials of the past
“We just don’t build houses like we used to.” Whether we’re criticizing an individual home or a wave of boxy buildings, it’s a common lament. Sometimes it’s a comment on quality—an assertion that houses aren’t as durable today as they once were—and sometimes it’s a comment on style—a belief that we don’t build houses that are as timeless, tasteful, or beautiful as they used to be. It’s something we say to defend the types of houses we grew up in or dream of someday living in.
It’s a statement that contains some truth, but it also misses crucial context about the material conditions, functionality, and style trends of the past.
When comparing today’s houses to yesterday’s, it’s important to consider labor, production, and technology. Often, when people talk about how much better old houses are than new houses (in the U.S., “old” refers to houses built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, since there aren’t many surviving houses from the 18th century or earlier), they invoke a change in the nature of labor: The houses of yesteryear were built by “skilled craftsmen,” and today’s houses are built by “unskilled labor.” These descriptions elide the fact that many of the “great buildings” in our canon of architecture were built by under- and even unpaid laborers. Slave labor was instrumental in the creation of the pre-Civil War traditional architecture of such cities as Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Construction has also always involved a mix of skilled and so-called unskilled labor. In the 19th century, the rise of unions for craftsmen and construction workers—a response to the harassment, injury, and danger that workers, many of them immigrants, faced on the job—created an environment for well-paid, skilled workers that still exists today. At the same time, many of the beloved houses of the 19th century and early 20th century, such as pattern book houses, kit houses, foursquares, and bungalows, were built by local carpenters, contractors, and builders who had small teams of employees or hired local day laborers. Often these houses were even built by the completely unskilled person who bought the house.