petroski’s Times article

Henry Petroski’s op-ed in the New York Times last week has made the rounds, and it’s the kind of thing that–on its surface–I’m all about:

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.


When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.


Hear, here, right?  Petroski is one of my heroes–his books on engineering and in particular on the role of failure in design have been inspirational, and I use his examples all the time in my teaching.  So the first few times I saw this in my inbox over the weekend I was smugly happy to see the culture of cheap, shoddy building that amortizes quickly and represents a “waste of resources” that “will not last” come in for a very public comeuppance.

But the more I’ve read this piece over the weekend, the more troubled I am about a couple of things.  First, Petroski goes right after “workmanship,” conflating “inferior products” with “less skilled labor” to describe the state of American construction today.  Anyone who’s worked on a job site knows that this is both totally true and totally untrue depending on the day of the week.  There’s no measure for “workmanship” that we can point to, but I’d argue that–compared to, say, the 19th century–the quality of building stock today is far better.  While I totally agree with Petroski’s lament about new residential construction (decaying vinyl siding and off gassing drywall, for instance), the well-crafted homes of the past that he refers to are examples of survivor’s bias; the really atrocious homes of those days are long-since gone.  Slum tenements, rural shacks, firetraps of apartment buildings in major cities–all of these have been replaced, while the best-crafted examples are the ones we look at today and imagine as standard housing from the past.  (See Jordan Ellenberg’s great How Not to be Wrong for a great explanation of survivor bias…)  Building codes and industry standards have ensured that the average house of today is better built, safer, and sturdier than the average house of 1900.

But the other problem, more serious, I think, with Petroski’s column is whom he blames.  In mixing up residential construction with infrastructure, he ends up calling on “homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike” to “call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.”  This, I think, unfairly blames builders for our problems with collapsing bridges, shabby housing, and potholes that reappear within weeks.  What Petroski fails to note is that all of these things cost money, and the budgets for quality construction in the public and private spheres have imploded over the last forty years.  Maintenance budgets, too, have been slashed by public institutions desperate to meet politically-minded budget cuts, donors fund new construction with no endowments to maintain their named buildings, and homeowners purchase more house than they can afford to buy, much less maintain.  It’s not that builders, contractors, or craftsmen are necessarily worse than a hundred years ago.  It’s that their clients, in particular public ones, have stopped asking for their best, and have stopped taking care of the things they make.

Blaming “cheaper labor” and “inferior new materials” sounds awfully grumpy, particularly when Petroski demands “almost maintenance-free” infrastructure.  There ain’t no such thing, and the unglamorous, unfunded task of keeping up the nice things we do have is just as big a problem.  It’s money, not a mythological lost “workmanship” that determines the quality of our infrastructure.  That lovely cedar siding he mentions needs a good coat of paint every twenty years…