Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Requisites of Quality

    There was an article on CNBC last week that announced “Death of the McMansion: Era of Huge Homes is Over.”  If only it were that simple.  The article is reporting on a trend away from houses with 3,200 or more square feet toward a new ideal size of less than 2,000 square feet.  The article further defines a McMansion as follows: “They’re tacky, they lack a definitive style and they have a displeasingly jumbled appearance.”  All of this is true but what really concerns me is that the biggest crime of all is never mentioned in the article: McMansions represented either complete ignorance of -- or complete indifference toward – the essential requisites of quality on the part of the buying public.  And I truly fear that this particular damage may be irreparable.  We have an entire generation of people who aspired toward huge residential structures that were built of materials that wouldn’t have passed muster for a mobile home buyer a generation earlier.  If these people were satisfied to own big shabby houses, then the only difference is that the shabby houses are now getting smaller.  The smaller houses will still contain inferior components.  I can think of three McMansion ghosts that I fear may haunt us for a long, long time.  They are: prefab fireplaces, fiberglass bathtubs, and low quality wood floors with polyurethane finishes.  There is nothing inherently evil about any of these but they are of inferior quality, use inferior materials and have no lasting value.  They are shams designed to appeal to the eye, but there is more to quality that the visual.  In fact the visual is the least reliable indicator of quality.  Quality is largely tactile.  True quality is a happy marriage of superior materials and first rate craftsmanship.  You can see it but more importantly: you can feel it.
    Prefab fireplaces almost always give themselves away because of the three or four inch difference between the hearth and the firebox.  On a real fireplace, the hearth flows evenly into the firebox.  That little strip of metal – sometimes veneered with a strip of polished marble – should raise an eyebrow.  Furthermore, there is nothing more ridiculous in appearance than the “chimney” of a prefab fireplace assembly floating off the ground with no support and rising into the air wrapped in wood.  This presentation was originally designed for use in very, very inexpensive starter homes in the 1970s.  No one at that would have ever believed that as the buyers became more affluent they would be content to place this truly ugly feature on more and more expensive houses.  If finally came to the point that – even on McMansions – no one even tried to camouflage the fact that the fireplaces were not real.  The more important issue was that the house could boast five to ten of the cheap units.  Just so you know: at this moment in Georgia, a real masonry fireplace in brick with no stone, limestone, or marble overlays and with no exceptional mantelpiece costs anywhere from $12k to $18 depending on how much footing and support must be prepared.  So, if you know someone who has a real masonry fireplace you should be very, very impressed.  If, however, you know someone with four or five prefab fireplaces – don’t call attention to them because it doesn’t mean too much.  At $2,500 to $3k apiece, five prefab fireplaces don’t add up to the cost of a single, tall masonry fireplace.
    Using an acrylic bathtub feels like bathing in a plastic milk carton.  The absence of quality is literally palpable.  There is admittedly a range of qualities offered that run the gamut from thin and bouncy to “looks like porcelain.”  But at the end of the day we are discussing a range of quality within the scope of a seriously cheap product.  And yet this cheap product became the national standard during the McMansion era.  Initially seen only in – again – cheap starter homes and cheaper motels, integrated fiberglass and acrylic tub units were originally manufactured to fill a niche market where time was of the essence and quality of no concern.  Using an integrated unit saved on the material and time involved in installing ceramic tile surrounds.  And then the manufacturers noticed that there was a considerable increase in earnings to be made on savings in freight between the lighter fiberglass tubs and the heavier porcelain and cast iron tubs.  The best American manufacturers, such as American Standard, developed such things as “Americast” (a fancy name for a plastic tub) and began a very successful marketing blitz so that the uninformed public just accepted the cheaper tub as a better tub.  I was working in design at the time this occurred and we were told by our plumbing reps to point out to the client that a porcelain and iron tub was cold but the fiberglass tub was not.  Well, that is a stupid thing to tell anyone who knows that cast iron, once heated, holds the heat for a very long time whereas plastic – while not cold – will not get warm either.  In any event, most of my older clients would tap the new tubs with their fingernails and say “Oooh – I don’t think so – it’s plastic.”  But younger clients seemed to be just fine with it.  Now, there are only two cast iron models with integrated aprons remaining: one each from America’s leading manufacturers.  American Standard offers the Spectra and Kohler has the Bellwether. The balance of bathtub choices is from a wide array of acrylic models.  So, if you see a house with over-sized soaking tubs or fancy styles and shapes of bathtub – don’t be too impressed.  If you look at a new house with a simple tub, and you tap the tub, and it feels rock solid and smooth as glass and cool to the touch, be impressed.  The person who chose the latter tub recognizes quality by the touch.
   Finally – it is very sad to consider the shoddy flooring that the public has accepted for the past thirty years.  “Hardwood floors” has come to describe anything except quality and craftsmanship.  To begin with, true hardwood floors needs to be milled lumber that has dressed thicknesses of at least 7/16”.  Beyond this, it is important to know that all wood is not created equally.  Before the McMansion era, it was understood that the typical home buyer could recognize the difference between common flooring and select flooring.  Select flooring even had a best-of-the-best grade with AAA clear select being the absolute best wood flooring that anyone could have.  Even in situations where a marginally good supply of real hardwood has been supplied for flooring, the craftsmanship of installation may really be irretrievably lost.  Suffice it to say that there is no way on earth that you can put a polyurethane finish on wood floors and have anything close to quality.  Again: polyurethane finishes were developed for use in inexpensive starter homes as a way of expediting the turnover time in construction.  By the 1970s, very few low end homes presented any wood flooring at all but when it did it was typically finished in poly.  By the 1980s, tract houses built on spec for the step up market began to feature wood floors in entrance halls and dining rooms as a sign of elegance.  These were, of course, finished with polyurethane, so the buyers gradually came to accept this method of finish as the standard.  By the time the full blown McMansion era was up and running, no one questioned the wisdom of spraying polyurethane on acres of wood flooring.  So what is the problem with a poly finish?  Well, assuming you have actually acquired good wood material, you might as well wrap it in Saran Wrap as spray it with polyurethane.  Wood sealed in poly is frozen in time.  It will never age properly; it will develop no patination whatsoever; and the depth of reflection will carry a clearly artificial appearance.  Really, you might as well use linoleum – the end effect will be much the same.  Many finishers advertise traditional finishes.  How can you tell if you’re getting one?  Well, aside for the fact that you should train yourself to be able to see the difference, you will know that you do not have a hand rubbed wax floor finish if you can walk on the floor twenty-four hours after it is finished.  Polyurethane dries extremely quickly.  A convention finish will take a week to ten days depending on the weather and requires thin coats of natural varnishes that dry completely and are then lightly sanded before the application of a second or third coat.  And all of this is followed by paste wax that is allowed to dry hard before buffing; a procedure that is repeated three times at least.  When you have seen the end result of the latter you will find a polyurethane finish to be inferior and repugnant.
    So, I sincerely hope that in addition to trimming back on the square footage of the average American home we recover some of the good taste and recognition of high quality that we used to possess prior to our little thirty year detour through junk land.

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