A Brief History of What Happened and Why

This is a companion piece to the “This Is Not My Beautiful House” post.  Both are talking about the same thing only coming at it from a couple different directions.

That guy on the left, he knew how to build stuff.  The guy on the right…..not so much.  What happened?

Building stuff was pretty much the same for a few thousand years.  Old growth timber, skin fired bricks and lime mortar, maybe adobe in warm dry regions, tile or stone roofing, and building trades steeped in centuries of apprenticeship and how to Do It the Right Way.  Put it all together and houses happen.  This surprisingly held together for most of history (with variations on occasion) with a slight change in direction when we hit the 20th century.  But, after WWII and the need to crank things up to accommodate previously unforeseen growth patterns, things changed a lot, and they changed really fast.

Natural materials like old growth timber started to play out in the 1960’s and tree farm lumber became the norm.  Masonry materials and practices changed radically.  The first engineered materials, most notably plywood, were introduced.  Volume building found it’s start, where instead of individuals or small companies building a few dozen houses a year, large corporations were building thousands of houses in mega developments.

When we hit the 1970’s, things really changed.  Manufactured materials took over from natural materials.  Vinyl siding instead of wood or brick, drywall instead of plaster, particle boards and paneling materials supplanted solid wood.  By the 1980’s, this trend accelerated with hundreds of new manufactured products being introduced annually.  By the 1990’s, we were in full swing and tree farm and engineered lumber were the standard.  But, guess what?

Builder’s were building new homes with engineered materials, but doing so with methods similar to those employed from previous centuries.  Things like moisture and vapor issues, something that really didn’t have much effect with old traditional materials, suddenly began to matter, and matter a lot.  We entered a new era where all the new engineered materials required education and training to use correctly.

During this same period,  all the vocational schools began shutting down.  Washburn Vocational School shuttled around between various sites until about 1934 when it took over the old massive Liquid Carbonic plant at 31st and Kedzie.  After the move to it’s new location, Washburne handled all of the vocational apprenticeships within the Chicago Public Schools.  This went on until the 1960’s.

Until that time, Washburn (and pretty much every other institution) was all white.  When the Federal Government began requiring desegregation in the mid to late 1960’s, the unions began to pull their programs.  There were 17 different unions at the school in 1965. A mere 13 years later, the number of unions had been cut nearly in half, with 8 remaining. By the time of the school’s first closure in 1993, only 2 programs remained.  The school reopened again for a couple years, then shuttered itself for good in 1996.  Washburn lives on, but not as a vocational training school.  It is a culinary and food industry school.  (More about Washburn here and here.)

The vocational training schools around 84th and the Skyway also shuttered their doors in the same general time frame.  High school shop classes began shutting down all through the 70’s and 80’s.  The building industry that developed all these new materials and methods, and the unions that until that time provided training, failed to provide equal opportunities and education so these new materials could be used correctly and effectively.

So, in this new era of building using new materials and methods requiring education and training to use appropriately, all education and training was eliminated.  The full impact of these changes were not immediately apparent because the 70’s and 80’s were recessionary times and there wasn’t that much building going on.  Of course housing was being built, but for anyone paying attention, a lot of these 70’s and 80’s houses were/are relatively flimsy and poor quality assemblages.

Come the 90’s, and the building industry, an industry that was essentially sleep walking,  kicked into high gear.

Unfortunately, the education and training that was vitally needed to build with new materials was still completely lacking.  Big bunches of houses pretty much got slammed together, and the result is a lot of housing that has fundamental problems,  often involving water, most of which that are only now being understood.  Part of that understanding is we now know how to build with new materials, and the other part is it costs a lot of money to correct or repair houses that were built wrong.  Doing R&D and Education in the field is an expensive way to learn, because the largest learning is usually done on the backs of consumers.

Just like most other issues we deal with as a modern society, lack of education is a big reason in how and why we arrived at the point we are now, which is, we have a lot of houses that aren’t working the way we need them to and the way we’d like them to.




I'm a home inspector and carpenter in Chicago and this site is built from things I’ve learned from 30 years inspecting houses in this town.

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