Heritage Restoration, Inc.

Designing to Fail

I have often wondered why windshield wipers don’t last longer. We have the technology to send stuff into outer space, but cannot make an everlasting wiper that can remove bug splats, tree droppings, or water. Architecture and building components have always failed over time, but it seems longevity is getting shorter and shorter.

Builders from hundreds even thousand of years ago would drool over the options we have. We can span great distances without supports, make walls out of glass, withstand mother nature’s fury from earthquakes to hurricanes, make crazy shapes, self cleaning walls, solar power generation, and gardens on roofs. But yet we cannot make building components that last as long as buildings built generations ago. Or can we?

 The pessimist in me would say that industry develops products with planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence. This artificially limited useful life is made to become obsolete or fail through aesthetics or function after a certain period of time. For example, the replacement window industry knows the cycle of new window failure is about 20 years, with about 30% of replacement windows less than 10 years old, so their business is guaranteed. But how long is enough?

The construction industry is not doing much to help. The trades have moved towards more assembly than craft. This has been happening since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1850’s, where buildings were manufactured, shipped, and assembled on site. This process certainly had its benefits, allowing many to own and build houses that never had an opportunity before. And today, the focus on assembly rather than skill benefits the do-it-yourselfer, allowing everyone to make something beautiful in a snap.

Then when you mix in strategic marketing strategies to sell beauty at a cheap price rather than quality, built-in obsolescence becomes the norm. As a consumer, you have to go out of your way to find a better product and there is little way to know if you are getting a better product, except maybe, just maybe, the price is an indicator. Then if you want that better product to last, it has to be installed properly, perhaps requiring a craftsman rather than an assembler.

I am not disparaging the trades or blaming the consumer. The expectation from buildings has switched from function first and beauty second to beauty first and function second. Most can achieve beauty when proper function is designed and built, but many consumers don’t understand proper function, cannot pay for it, or both.

The faces failures are many. Making, assembling, and maintaining buildings cause systematic, predictable, preventable, masked, designed, or inevitable failure. Sure, new houses are great, but the predictable failure of 10-25 years will eventually make them worse than any old building. All buildings have predictable failures, it’s just a matter of managing them and being sure you are not leaving the building with catastrophic and simultaneous strings of failures. So be mindful of your cause and effect, since you are inheriting the choices of your predecessor.