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David Bouchier: Build We Must

Paul Brennan from Pixabay

It seems that just about everything has come to a standstill except building. There are active constructions sites all over the place, one of them virtually in our backyard. A big house is being shoehorned into the last remaining patch of woodland . It makes sense that, under the present administration, the last industry to close down would be real estate development.

There is something touchingly optimistic about this suburban building right now. It suggests the confident anticipation of willing buyers with mortgages, and the money to spare for furniture and home appliances, alarm systems, and all the other things necessary to turn an empty patch of land into a profitable real estate deal. Builders, like tree farmers, must gamble on the long-term future.

There’s not much variation in the design of these new homes. You see the same architecture all over Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. It’s as if, in the great suburban explosion of the 1950s and 1960s, the developers had set out from the boroughs with half a dozen standard plans, and never felt the need to change them – Cape, Colonial, Ranch, Victorian and so on over and over again. The few genuine old houses show how little has changed. This seems to tell us that we have arrived at the ideal, and need never think about our suburban house designs ever again. You can walk into almost any one of these homes and feel at home straight away

It must also make building easier. I’ve been observing the construction crew right in front of my window with some fascination. They never seem to consult a plan, either on paper or on a computer.  After years of building the same house it is obviously automatic for them, like doing the same jigsaw puzzle over and over. Much of the house arrived like Lego ready cut pieces ready to fit together.

I used to be addicted to a program called “This Old House” on public television, and now I have had the chance to see men (and at least one woman) doing the real, hard work of house building. All that TV watching made me a knowledgeable critic. Have they got the window insulation exactly right? Is the flashing around that chimney fixed down tightly enough? There is plenty of work still to be done, so I can look forward to several more weeks of back seat building.

Some of these workers are risk-takers, like their employers, and I hope they are paid accordingly. The roofers especially kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s a tall house, and they were running around twenty-five feet in the air, carrying heavy nail guns, without any safety equipment that I could see, let alone masks. I suppose they are protected by social distance of the vertical kind. Nobody is going to climb up there and sneeze on them.

We need our suburban houses of course. We are living in one – indeed virtually hiding in it. After a few more weeks of lockdown we will be as tightly adapted to our house as a snail to her shell or a hermit to his cave. Thank goodness the design is perfect. We may never want to go out ever again.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.
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