An Existential Question

by Don Friedman on March 15, 2018

In the last year or so, people in the A/E/C community have had the all-too-rare pleasure of watching a new critic come into her own. Kate Wagner began with McMansion Hell, a web site devoted to making fun of the excess of pointlessly large and horribly undersigned houses, but has branched out into other forms of architectural critique. Realistically, McMansion Hell is fun but trifling, and Wagner’s eye and writing are too good to be wasted on a trifle.

She recently wrote a piece for Curbed called “Are home renovations necessary?” That’s enough to send a shiver down my spine, as our office works on a fair number of house renovations, but the subtitle is worse (or better, depending on your view): “Renovations have become a national pastime, but there is nothing wrong with your house.” If everyone stops renovating tomorrow, the market for an engineering firm that specializes in old buildings shrinks dramatically. So, do I disagree with Wagner for selfish reasons, agree with her and starve, or is there another option?

It seems to me that she is arguing two points. First, people often mistake home renovations for life improvements. I’ve seen this in person and I’ve seen this problem represented in media as far back as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House in 1948. Second, a spate of reality TV shows have convinced people that their homes should look like the pictures in architectural fashion magazines. Those pictures are intensely artificial, with all the clutter of actual life hidden away and replaced with artistically-placed fruit bowls (or whatever the latest cliché is). Those pictures are also part of a long architectural tradition of ignoring and hiding the messy parts of life when they interfere with the designers’ vision. Of course, no one should renovate their house – an expensive and disruptive undertaking – without good reason.

Having said all this, I feel a little better about our house projects. They rarely take place within an occupied building: probably 90 percent of them are post-purchase and pre-move-in. More importantly, we are serving a different demographic. The middle class is notably absent from our residential client list for the simple reason that the renovations that most people can afford are small enough to not need engineers. We work on housing for poor people, usually through housing non-profits or government agencies, and we design renovations for people who have enough money to make structural alterations to a house, such as additional floors in rowhouses. Wagner is not, as far as I can see, telling rich people to not renovate. She’s telling the middle class that their houses are okay.

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