My wife and I just got back from a trip to South America. Part of the time was spent in Peru in the heart of the Inca Empire. We traveled through the Sacred Valley visiting Cusco, Ollantaytambo, and, of course, Macchu Picchu. Being thoroughly awestruck is standard fare for such a visit, and we were. The drama, the spirituality, and the mystery of these places and what the Inca accomplished in about 100 years have no equal, at least in my experience.
But, being the practical guy that I am, what I could not stop thinking about was the quality of the architecture. Much has been made about how all these huge rocks were cut and placed with precision that doesn’t seem humanely possible. I still can’t get my head around it. And it is the end result that really tells the story. What Inca walls that were not purposefully destroyed by Conquistadors or Missionaries, or blown up by treasure hunters, remain in perfect or near perfect condition 500 years later. And this is in an area famous for its earthquakes. And, in what is most telling of all, the masonry walls built by the Europeans on top of the Inca walls have fallen down repeatedly!
Bringing me back to the point I want to make…
Perhaps using the Incan walls as the litmus test for durability is a bit extreme. But, in my view, the widespread acceptance and adoption of building materials that last for just a few years, or are simply unfit for use and guaranteed to fail in short order — think stick-on bath accessories — is equally extreme (and self-defeating and unsustainable to boot).
To wit: When wife Sue and I bought a run-down ranch 11 year ago, the prior owners had just “redone” the little farmhouse. New vinyl windows had been recently installed, probably bought at the local big box. So I thought to myself, we will just have to live with them for a while. They are crappy, won’t last much more than twenty years or so, and then we can replace them. But no…
Right away, seals started to fail, vinyl started to rip, screens were so flimsy that removing them and putting them back required more delicacy than I can muster. Here was a product that clearly wasn’t designed to last more than five years – perhaps 10 at the most before being ripped out and taken to the landfill. (And then back to the big box to buy more!) The left side of my brain doesn’t get it.
Buying a cheap pot for the kitchen because you can’t afford the quality one today may not be the right choice in the long run, but at least it is rationally defensible. But buying windows that won’t last more than 5 years? When it comes to remodeling, and things like windows that are so expensive and such a headache to repair and replace, choosing the cheap but poorly-made option is irrational. Certainly the explanation for such a self-defeating choice is the low price — and not really facing the reality of the expected life span.
But cheap designed-to-fail building materials are the norm today, sadly, and we are all poorer for it, in more ways than one. You, dear reader and customer, are probably somebody who already rejects that approach. Rejuvenation rejects that approach. Our roots in preservation and historic design are hopelessly intertwined with the idea and execution of Built to Last.
Investing in a sustainable, long-term approach to the built environment is not that different from resisting the temptation for cheap processed foods and replacing them with wholesome ones that are sustainably grown. It will pay over time; you and your home will be more attractive. It’s not easy, it involves investment and commitment. But the results, and the eventual payoff, are very nice. Just ask anyone who visits the Sacred Valley.