Fast, cheap and out of control

“Goddamned cracker boxes.”

That’s how my dad summed up his business one evening at the dinner table. He was a carpenter, a trim carpenter actually—working on the wild suburban frontier of a Southern boomtown where I grew up. And he helped build cracker boxes. Today, I suppose we’d call them McMansions, as R.V. Scheide does in this week’s Feature Story (“Rotten houses”).

Dad hated, and still hates, to see things done in a half-assed manner. (I have a lot of stories along that line, but those are for another time.) Then, as now, houses were going up so fast in the new subdivisions he worked in that there was constant pressure to cut corners, to save time, to save money on materials and labor. He eventually left that business, partly because he didn’t want to keep building crappy houses.

As Scheide notes, the economics of the construction industry all but guarantee that a fair number of shoddy houses are being built. For one thing, we’ve gotten a bit nervous about logging what’s left of our forests and are relying more and more on inferior composites. But the sheer scale of new home construction seems to me like the real culprit.

It’s telling that the slang term “McMansion” has surfaced in the last few years. It intentionally evokes that McDonald’s sign boasting over a billion served. And as anybody who’s eaten at the Golden Arches can tell you, ubiquity is not the same as quality.

Are even the places we live now just like Happy Meals (or unhappy meals, as the case may be), mass-produced to make a quick buck and not intended to last?

Crappy houses make for crappy neighborhoods. What kinds of places will these be in 50 years? It’s not like we can just toss out a house, or a neighborhood, like some cheap toaster you bought at Target that breaks after a year or two.

Will the neighborhoods that are being built today mature into neighborhoods like Land Park, or Oak Park—which, despite its economic ups and downs, still boasts a great stock of sturdy old houses? It seems unlikely. They just don’t build ’em like they used to.