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The Evolution of Home Building: 1900 to Today

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By Brian Wilkins

The average length of time to build a single-family home, from obtaining the permit to laying out the welcome mat, is seven months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s longer than the six months it took to build a house in 1973,  but less than the 7.9 months it took in 2009 after the market collapsed.

To add some perspective, it took only 410 days to build the Empire State Building from start to finish in 1931. Everything from technology to the demographics of buyers has changed the way homes have been built over the past century. Americans have also become obsessed with size. The average three-bedroom home built in the 1960s had about 1,200 square feet of living space. That would be considered a shack compared to the “McMansions” constructed during the pre-2008 housing bubble that were twice that size. The evolution of home construction is also a product of better materials and schematics. Here we explore some of the most notable.

Post-Antebellum

The turn of the century saw amenities like indoor plumbing and heat become more mainstream. To compensate for the increased costs that accompanied installation, the size of a typical home shrank to about 700 square feet. Lot sizes were also reduced in the early 20th century so rows of houses could be built. Homes gradually became places strictly for dwelling, sleeping, and recreation. Americans were no longer making their own clothes and food at their homes — they had become consumers instead of producers, so the extra space was unnecessary. It was not until the 1940s that bedrooms were regularly built into homes.

Before that, there was little privacy for average people, as most beds stood up against walls of one-room homes when not in use. In her book “American Home Life 1880-1930: A Social History of Space and Service,” Candace Volz said electricity and central heat completely altered floor plans and made homes social spaces to invite others. Window air conditioners became available in the 1930s, but cost the equivalent of about $120,000 today; units became much cheaper after World War II, then were overtaken by central air in the 1970s.

Materials Revolution

The first American settlers built log cabins because wood was the most readily-available material for home construction. It was soon discovered that insects, animals, and weather made them impractical for long-term use. Air conditioning made Southwest cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas bearable,with  both experiencing exponential population growth in the 1950s. Homes were mass produced with stucco exterior walls, the cheap, low-maintenance cement plaster that effectively resists heat and dry conditions.

Roof construction across the country also evolved with better materials. Wood shingles were around for centuries, but were highly combustible and impractical. Today, there are a wide variety of shingles from which to choose. Champion Comfort 365 roofs come with leak barriers and roof deck protection, so not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but great for all climates and conditions. Stone shingles are expensive, but last for centuries. Metal shingles are the most fire-resistant of them all.

Drywall and Copper

Sheetrock, also known as drywall, replaced plaster as the primary material for interior walls in the 1960s. It’s cheap, easy to install, and doesn’t crack as easily as plaster. Builders experimented with polybutylene pipes 50 years ago, but soon discovered copper and PVC were far more durable and reliable. It’s difficult to predict how home construction will evolve over the next 100 years. As 3D technology becomes more mainstream and affordable, perhaps 3D-printed homes will become the new building trend.

Brian Wilkins is a small business owner and freelance writer.

Have an idea for a guest blog for Construction Today? Contact alan.dorich@phoenixmediacorp.com or jim.harris@phoenixmediacorp.com.