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Is Older Better?


Is Older Better? | You’re looking at an old piece of lumber from the late 1800s versus a modern timber. Look at the difference in the size of the growth rings. Which one is more rot resistant and which one is stronger? Copyright 2020 Tim Carter

Old Building vs New Building – Interesting Debate!

You’ve undoubtedly heard the saying, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Often it’s said in frustration when a newer product fails long before you might think it should. If I could wave a magic wand and be a teacher in a vocational school dedicated to building things, I can assure you that I’d break my senior class up into old vs. new teams and this topic be the subject of a large debate assignment.

While I do possess certain mystic building and plumbing powers, I’m not able to pull this off in a classroom, so you and I will have the discussion right here and now. I wonder which team you’d like to be on? You might discover something about old and new building products and methods that just might put your head on a swivel.

I had the good fortune to cut my teeth as a young builder working in and on old homes in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati experienced explosive suburban growth in the late 1800s. People started to see the benefits of living up on the hilltops that overlooked the smokey and grimy Mill Creek Valley. New single-family and multi-family homes were being built in a decades-long building boom.

Old Lumber is Far Better Than New

Rough framing lumber back then was indeed rough. It was bigger than today’s wall studs and floor joists. The wood was cut from old-growth timber and the growth rings were thin. There was often an equal amount of strong and dense summerwood, the darker growth ring, versus the weaker and softer springwood, the lighter growth ring you see on lumber.

Today’s timber has been hybridized to grow faster and you see far more spring wood than summerwood. Modern lumber is more susceptible to rot and movement because of this high spring wood content.

Old Solid Masonry is Better Than Modern Brick Veneer

Old brick homes didn’t have the water-leakage issues and mold problems of today’s brick-veneer homes. The masons of old knew that wind-driven rainwater would penetrate brick walls so they used a softer inner brick to absorb the water before it got indoors. After the storm, the water would be pulled out of the brick by the sun and wind. The masons also knew that hydrated lime and sand made for a much better mortar than today’s modern products.

Old Concrete Had More Portland Cement

Walk down older sidewalks in some cities or look at the concrete supporting railroad bridges and you might be able to make the case that today’s concrete is not as good as that made 80 or 100 years ago. This is a complex topic but one thing the older concrete masons knew is that if you just added some additional Portland cement to the mix, the concrete would absolutely be stronger and last longer. There have been amazing advancements in modern concrete that when coupled with expert installation create an artificial rock that will last hundreds of years.

PEX Water Lines Don’t Burst When Frozen

Debates ebb and flow and the team that puts forth modern products are better than older ones will most likely win the day when it comes to both the plumbing and electric inside your home. It’s hard to disagree with the benefits of modern PEX water supply lines over the older galvanized iron water lines I used to remove because they were clogged solid with calcium deposits. PEX water lines don’t burst when they freeze causing mayhem and untold headaches.

Cast Iron Drain Lines are Quiet

Old cast iron and galvanized drain lines would rot out or become clogged whereas modern PVC can perform for decades with no issues if you watch what you put down your sinks and toilets. Granted modern spun-cast iron pipes are far superior to older cast iron and it doesn’t transmit sound like modern PVC pipes that sound like Niagara Falls when you flush a second-floor toilet.

Modern Electric Cables and Wires are Better

Modern electric cable and advanced circuit breakers are, in my opinion, far superior to the old knob-and-tube wiring and screw-in fuses. Modern electric wiring in homes installed to code creates a much safer environment than what you might find in a home wired in 1913.

Ceramic Tile Set in Concrete Mortar is Best

The back-and-forth discussion about ceramic tile would be fascinating to listen to. You might not know about ceramic tile set in concrete on both walls and floors. I can’t begin to tell you how durable older ceramic wall tile is that was installed over screeded concrete mortar embedded in wire lath. Today’s tile installed over a waterproof gypsum board or 1/2-inch-thick cement board is simply no comparison.

Old Craftsmen Treated Work as a Vocation

If you decided to be on the debate team that said older was better, you’d have a field day with workmanship issues. In my opinion, I think the workmanship in older homes is far superior to what you generally see in today’s homes. Yes, there are still a few craftsmen today that treat what they do as a vocation rather than a job. But go back in time and just about every worker took enormous pride in what they produced each day.

Bring Back Shop Class to High Schools

This is why I’m a huge proponent of re-introducing building technology into all high schools across the USA. I want to expose young girls and boys to the trades and open their eyes to how fulfilling it is to work with your hands and create things that help others. There’s a vast shortage of young people entering all of the building trades and there’s never been a better time to get a job that will pay well.

Houses need constant care and upkeep so you’ll discover there’s a never-ending stream of work for you, especially if you develop a reputation that’s the motto at the bottom of each of my AsktheBuilder.com newsletters: Do It Right, Not Over!

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