Does old craftsmanship beat new technology in home remodeling?

But since I’m just a builder, plumber, and scribe, you and I will have this discussion here and now. Which team would you choose?

I was fortunate enough to have my teeth cut as a young builder working in and on old homes in Cincinnati. The city experienced explosive growth in the suburbs at the end of the 19th century. People saw the benefits of living on the hills overlooking the smoky and filthy Mill Creek Valley. In a construction boom that lasted for decades, new single and multi-family houses were built.

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Rough wood was indeed rough back then. It was larger than today’s wall posts and floor joists. The wood was cut from old wood, and if you looked at the end grain grain, you could see the thin growth rings. There was often the same amount of strong, dense summer wood – that is, the darker growth ring – as there was weaker, softer springwood, the lighter growth ring that you see on wood.

Today’s wood has been hybridized to grow faster, and you are seeing far more Springwood than Summerwood. As a result, modern wood is more prone to rot and movement.

Old brick houses did not have the water leakage and mold problems of today’s brick veneer houses. The ancient masons knew that wind-blown rainwater would penetrate brick walls, so they used a softer inner brick to absorb the water before it got inside. After the storm, the sun and wind would pull the water out of the brick. The masons also knew that hydrated lime and sand were a much better mortar than today’s modern products.

If you walk down older sidewalks or look at the concrete bridges in some cities, you may find that concrete today is not as good as it was 80 or 100 years ago. This is a complex subject, but one thing the older concrete masons knew is that if you just added extra portland cement to the mix, the concrete would be completely stronger and longer lasting. Amazing advances have been made in modern concrete which, when combined with expert installation, create an artificial rock that will last for hundreds of years.

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These are some of the strengths of the “old” team. What could the “new” team boast about? You would most likely win the day when it comes to plumbing and electrical installations. It’s hard to disagree with the advantages of modern PEX water supply lines over the older galvanized iron water lines that I removed earlier because they were clogged with calcium deposits. PEX water pipes don’t burst when they freeze, causing chaos and immeasurable headaches.

Old cast iron and galvanized drain pipes would rot or clog, while modern PVC can work flawlessly for decades if you are careful about what you put in your sinks and toilets. Granted, modern spun cast iron pipes are far superior to older cast iron pipes and don’t transmit sound like modern PVC pipes that sound like Niagara Falls when you flush a second floor toilet.

Modern electrical cables and advanced circuit breakers, in my opinion, are far superior to old button and tube wiring and screw-in type fuses. Modern household electrical cables installed by code create a much safer environment than what you might find in a house that was wired up in 1913.

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Ceramic tiles would be an interesting topic of debate. You may not know about ceramic tiles set in concrete on walls and floors. I can’t tell you how durable older ceramic wall tiles were when they were laid over screed concrete mortar in wire battens. Today’s tile installed over a waterproof plasterboard or ½ inch thick cement board is simply beyond comparison.

The “old” team could have a field day with processing. In my opinion, the workmanship in older homes is far better than in today’s homes. Yes, there are still some artisans who see what they do as a calling rather than work. But go back in time and almost every worker was very proud of what they produced every day.

Because of this, I am a huge advocate of reintroducing building technology courses to all high schools in the United States. I want to expose young girls and boys to the craft and open their eyes to how fulfilling it is to work with your hands and create things that will help others. There is a huge shortage of young people entering all construction trades and there has never been a better time to find a job that pays off.

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Homes need constant maintenance and upkeep, so there is a never-ending stream of work for those who want it, especially those who value a reputation for good work. That’s why I put this motto at the bottom of each of my newsletters: Get it right, not over!

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