Last weekend, I was hanging out on the porch of preservationist Bob Yapp’s 1859 mansion in Hannibal, Mo., which he has meticulously restored into the Belvedere Inn Bed and Breakfast. Bob and I were sharing a number of war stories about the preservation business and he told me a great story about his father. His father was a weekend warrior who worked on his 1907 Craftsman-style home. One day he said to young Bob, “We don’t own this home.” Bob became alarmed that the family was moving so his father clarified his statement. “Yes, we bought this home, but we are stewards of this house. Being a good steward means every time we fix something we must do good work that lasts so the next family can enjoy it as much as we have.” That interaction had a life changing impact on young Yapp and made me think about how few people in the construction business truly embrace the role of being a good steward.
Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of all resources. It can be applied to many practices like the environment, business, economics, government, theology, etc. This principle, essentially, is the guiding force to do what’s right for the long term. Most often that involves short-term sacrifices. Unfortunately, the American culture has become more driven by immediate satisfaction. We devour fast food, demand a rising stock market, have instant access to information, pop pills for quick remedies, and require prompt returns on real-estate transactions. I am concerned that our obsession for immediacy is making us become poor stewards of our resources.
The neglect of the concept of stewardship is rampant in the construction industry. Most developers are in the business to earn a quick profit for their shareholders. They are not in the business of promoting the general welfare of the community. So it makes sense from their perspective that a city block needs to be razed to make way for the new office complex. The positive ROI they generate in a 20-year period far surpasses what could be generated from the existing structures. But where does this leave the community over the next 100 years? Many a city in the U.S. has been carved up by misguided development that just doesn’t make sense over multiple generations. The Best Buy and Kohl’s stores will be long forgotten when the shells of their non-distinct buildings clutter the landscape.
We are also seeing a significant increase in the tearing down of established neighborhoods because the value of their land has increased to the point that it is desirable for constructing a modern McMansion. This movement called “mansionization” has resulted in an estimated 32,000 homes being leveled across the country in 2014 so an owner can have 4 bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms like one finds in suburban America. This clear-cutting of the vintage housing stock is obliterating the character of many a community. My old neighborhood where I lived in the mid-’80s in Dallas is totally unrecognizable today because of this phenomenon.
This isn’t to say there hasn’t been redevelopment of existing structures. Historic tax incentives and a rising appeal of classic architecture has sparked an interest in the restoration of historic buildings for use as loft apartments, offices, hotels and specialty retail stores. Unfortunately, in an effort to achieve a quick ROI on this work, the construction team resorts to substandard materials and processes to reduce the cost of the restoration. Other projects are driven by unrealistic energy-efficiency expectations, the naive desire to eliminate maintenance, or the achievement of LEED points. For example, the 75-year-old windows on these projects are often replaced with a system that has a useful life of 20 years. Instead of restoring an existing window that was designed to last for hundreds of years, they swap them with disposable replacements. Bob Yapp’s father would not be impressed.
The key to combating these disturbing trends is to embrace the concept of stewardship. When one understands how briefly we all occupy this land and accepts a responsibility to leave it in a better condition, stewardship will become second nature. I hope that someday this manner of living will become mainstream rather than an ethos shared by a radical minority.
This blog post first appeared on Re-View’s Window Review Blog.