There’s a neat old saw that “they used to build houses better”.
I believe there is another way to look at it: all the bad houses have already fallen down.
One quality of time is that we forget that skills existed in the past. We have a tendency to wish that things were better in the past.
We remember best what we have known, and the most recent experiences are the most memorable. This is not to say that we know the present all that well, it just means that we carry our biases with us. This can lead to odd beliefs- the idea that the world was better “back then”, that the world today is “more dangerous” than the past, while at the same time experiencing the greatest overall safety and peace of any time in history.
When we think about the past we are often disregarding anything bad that happened then while thinking only of today’s problems. Alternatively, one may forget that all that we have today is a continuum from the past.
When we look at the built environment we often look with a pair of biases- one that we have the best technology that has ever existed and can create things with a precision previously not possible. The other is that we see these old buildings filled with incredible craftsmanship and take the belief that the comparatively plain buildings of today are because we don’t have the skills that existed then.
The problem with the former view is that we don’t give the skills necessary to build the past enough credit. We think that the lack of refined tools means there couldn’t be refined products. The good thing about this is that people are fairly easy to amaze by showing them craftsmanship from the past.
A problem with the latter view is that one may not realize that the buildings still standing today are the best built structures of yesterday. There are many buildings being built today that will easily last as long as the best built in history, especially when considering comparable materials.
The reason for this is really a combination of two things- we have better technology and can create buildings that will last longer with a lower level of skill required of the people building them.
Another is that we have vastly different skill sets today; looking at the amazing structures that were built, it is hard to compare the skill sets. We don’t have many carpenters who can use a hand saw or carve a capital quickly. On the other hand, most carpenters have several motorized saws and pneumatic nailers. They don’t need to know the geometry to lay out compound cuts because they have compound saws- all they need to know is the cut angles, and most have a computer that can calculate them.
We also forget that regular people living in houses in relative comfort is a fairly recent affair. Go back a mere two hundred years and you find that the majority of people shared their houses with their precious livestock (if they were lucky enough to own livestock). The resources they could spend on shelter were very limited and the consideration of comfort was not easily afforded. Those houses are mostly gone because they couldn’t afford to hire an experienced carpenter or mason to build them.
The churches and castles, the trader’s mansions that still stand today, those buildings were constructed using slaves and conscripted labor. The cathedrals and churches benefited from the quasi-voluntary labor of the trades building for the glory of God or Allah, of Zeus or Anubis. These were labors of love and conscripted labor, and we wouldn’t want some of those skills brought back. Who wants to see someone smoothing a Granite slab floor with blocks of stone and sand?
How about those skills?
We still use most of the skills from the past today, and we have technology that allows us to use mathematics at a higher level and more commonly than at any time in the past.
What we don’t do is longhand mathematics. We don’t need to because we have computers. We have architects who design most structures, and those that are built without an architect are inspected by engineers. Cabinet makers model their projects before building them. We do more before building than ever before, and that allows us to build at a level that a mere hundred years ago was only available to the wealthy.
But, what about the skills? We still have them. They aren’t as common throughout the trades because it isn’t required to have journeymen on every job any more. How the skilled trades were diminished in the US is another long story, but suffice to say that they haven’t been eliminated; there are still carpenters who know the sacred geometry of the French Compagnons and the German Zimmermanns, who know how to build traditional Japanese buildings, and Chinese temples. There are still shipwrights who can loft a boat.
These skills are not needed for most homes. They are expensive skills acquired over many years, and most of the people who have a strong understanding of them are working on the complicated, expensive homes or in the area of restoration or conservation. They are teaching in union and specialty trade schools, or training their employees who then go spread this information.
One trick of time is that it always seems that the past or the future is better than now. It is easy to suspect that there is something missing today, but most of the time what is missing is just outside of one’s experience.