Maintenance

My children come into the house and throw their bags, coats and shoes on the floor and proceed to tread upon them. They go running around outside with their socks on, quickly ruining said socks. They lean back on chairs and ottomans and I have had to repair the ottomans four times in the last year. They leave doors and windows open, lights on and leave candy wrappers on bookshelves. This is what kids do, and we try our best to correct these habits.

But we have bad habits of our own. It is cold today, and I need to close the storm windows, and that attic window I meant to repair this summer is still loose. I shoveled the front steps but I didn’t shovel the back steps. I need to call someone about the right front burner on the range and perhaps I need to change a water filter and I definitely should get someone to check on the furnace and radiators. Another summer project left undone – painting the outside of the attic windows. At least we got those chimney caps on last year.

The point of this exceedingly boring rundown is one of the most important aspects of conserving historic buildings: maintenance. I have to thank my high school friend Jenny Brezon Fluteau, who emailed from the south of France, where she and her husband make wine and champagne. She said she had a big old house that had been poorly maintained and could use help. I replied that I had the same house. When people complain about the expense of historic preservation, what they are usually talking about, in fact, is the expense of deferred maintenance. The $100 problem ignored until it becomes a $1,000 problem. Or a $100,000 problem.

My favorite $1,000,000 problem was one I encountered during the effort to save St. Mary of the Angels church in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The massive brick walls were cracking and the interior of the dome was flaking paint and plaster. It was water damage, and everyone knew it was because the building was old.

No, it wasn’t. It was because the building had not been maintained. This is a pandemic problem with houses of worship, usually operated by people NOT trained in the management and maintenance of buildings. And they are very big, very complicated buildings. At St. Mary’s, a variety of roof patches over the years – perhaps done by well-meaning parishioners – had led to a buildup of roofing tar in the gutters, which were blocked. So the water was running through the walls.

It was a million-dollar problem caused by the poor – and repetitive – application of a $100 solution. It was not because the building was old. In fact, it was still standing BECAUSE IT WAS OLD. They built things very well in the 1910s and many of those buildings can stand an incredible amount of abuse. They can stand much more abuse than my recently purchased ottomans, or the kids’ snowboots, or their socks.

In reality, a well-maintained house built in the 19th or early 20th centuries (and even many well-crafted homes from the later 20th century) is less expensive than a new vernacular house IF IT IS MAINTAINED. That is a big “if” because it almost never is.

We live in the ether of the myth of maintenance-free. NOTHING, nowhere, ever, is maintenance-free. Our myth of maintenance-free is a byproduct of the consumer culture that encourages replacement. New replacement windows are maintenance-free because when they break, you throw them out and buy new ones. A new boiler is maintenance-free until it gets old. Same with a new fridge or a new door or a new floor or a new paint job or the Mount Olympus of maintenance-free mythology; artificial siding. You will never paint again because the siding will disguise the disintegration of your walls until it is time to replace EVERYTHING.

There is a design issue here as well. Prior to 1930, almost every building was designed to be repaired, and its components were designed to be repaired. IN the postwar consumer culture, our economy depended on REPLACEMENT rather than REPAIR. It was economically advantageous to buy things that needed replacement, and those things included houses.

I have spent two decades telling anyone who would listen that most new houses are not built to last as long as their 30-year mortgages. NO ONE has ever told me this is wrong. It is an economic and technological fact, by and large. You can’t sand and refinish a floor that is studs, layers of plywood and carpet.

Good stuff can be repaired. Good clothes can be mended, and shouldn’t be thrown on the floor and trod upon, as I try to tell my children. Good appliances can be repaired. Good houses can be fixed as well. And they shouldn’t be neglected for years.

Historic houses are often so darn good that they can still be fixed feasibly EVEN after years of neglect. But that is usually what makes them expensive – the years of neglect. If I get to all my projects on my house, and bring it back from the neglect it has suffered, I will still need to remain vigilant and spend money and time on it every season of every year. Buildings, like cities and like people, need constant care, feeding and attention. Especially if you are worried about spending a ton of money.

Chicago photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel once said that the only enemies of historic buildings were water and stupid men. If you let the water in, the building quickly deteriorates. If you keep the water out (that is why you always fix the roof first) you have time to address other issues. But the best thing is to MAINTAIN the building over time, like the auto enthusiast who worries about changing the oil and the brake fluid and the transmission fluid and rotating the tires. Most massive building problems start out as little leaks and flakes and tiny failures that are ignored – usually for frightfully long times. Building conservation is not inherently expensive if it is approached as an ongoing task of maintenance. If it is a rescue operation after the passage of a catastrophic amount of time, then it can be.

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One Response to “Maintenance”

  1. Mitchell Brown Says:

    I’ve just finished reading Christopher Leinberger’s The Option of Urbanism – Investing in a New American Dream and he outlines the modern real-estate industries penchant for “commoditization” and disposibility.

    Basically think of the REIT’s who finance most new construction…they’re traded publicly and to be traded publicly it must be “same”, that is the industries are “Like for Like”. There are the 19 Standard Real-Estate Product Types (2006) – any deviation does not get financed, or if it does, its high-end. The REITs determine the life-cycle of the property and thats “engineered” to coincide with the life of the building. Anything residual value left over after the lease or mortgage is considered “gravy”.

    Maintenance in this atmosphere is to viewed as positively perverse!

    An excellent read and a scary peek into the world of finance that is underwriting the crime that passes for “Place” in America.

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