The Life Of Houses

Patterns of Life by an original mind
Patterns of Architecture by an original mind

Two writers who’ve influenced my life and career, William Shakespeare and Christopher Alexander, explore the human condition. Shakespeare’s works reflect universal human truths, Alexander’s the universal patterns of building and organizing communities.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Like Alexander I look for patterns; in this case the similarities between the Life of Houses and Life of Man.

Infants take their first steps toward equilibrium

Infant and Toddler

At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

At this tender age I verify that component parts function and identify omissions and minor defects. These babies have wet diapers: as concrete and wood cure they expel moisture during first years. Birth defects like foundation settlement and framing defects appear at this time.


The Joyful Child is fresh and unblemished


Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
and shining morning face, creeping like snail
unwilling to school.

Homes in the 6-12 year range are least bothersome. This age range correlates to the median length of ownership.  Systems and components have yet to wear out. Other than a bit of maintenance these children do pretty well.

Froward youths demand attention. A time for new component wardrobes

Growing Pains…..and Expenses

And then the lover,
sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Teen homes are demanding. Shingles, dishwashers, A/C condensers and water heaters fail.  Defective components are identified. Maintenance and repair expenses increase.

The Soldier: Confident, fearless, strong

Passage to Adult

Then a soldier, full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation
even in the cannon’s mouth.

Having withstood the forces of nature for two decades and having clothed themselves in new robes these fearless soldiers are ready to conquer the world……..or neighborhood.

Life Reimagined. Every 20 years or so one needs rearrange the architecture

Repair and Renovation Reality

Homes, like people, need love (repair, attention, renovation, rejuvenation) every generation. The economics of this market produce two variables:

  • Un-loved homes remain unsold or are purchased at a discount by investors
  • Wholly renovated “turnkey” homes sell quickly
“Fixer-uppers” don’t affect the market the way they used to: fewer buyers are interested in increasing home value through sweat equity.
Middle Years are confident and well-maintained

Middle-aged Maturation 

And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
full of wise saws, and modern instances,
and so he plays his part.

40-60 year old homes, especially those well-built and maintained, express comfort, individuality and success. For better or worse they reflect the character, personality and taste of those who live in them.

Like a good wine senior homes exhibit taste and refinement

Senior Citizen

While The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
with spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
his youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
for his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
turning again towards childish treble, pipes
and whistles in his sound.

The pace of change and rejuvenation slows.  Grandma and grandpa’s house remains comfortable yet dated. It may sag a bit, a condition I describe as “old house ambiance”. Owners replace systems and components only on an as-needed basis without regard to fashion.

The end: Mere Oblivion

Death and Rebirth:  Tear Downs and Homes Reborn

Last scene of all,
that ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Reborn as a pop-top

Unlike man a house, if not too far gone, removed or inconsequential, can be reborn.
Old homes die because they become too costly to maintain, occupy desirable economic locations, burn, rot, are consumed by pests, suffer from changes in demographics and transportation or from lack of care.



A home of consequence and a timeless way

No building is ever perfect
When things are first built gaps between the parts are often left un-whole
It is necessary to keep changing the buildings, according to the real events which actually happen
…the gaps get filled, the small things that are wrong are gradually corrected, and finally, the whole is so smooth and relaxed, that it will seem as though it had been there forever.

60% of American homes were built after 1970. How these homes age is of particular concern to me.  I want their owners to enjoy them but also to understand how they can always be improved-to strive for a smooth and relaxed whole. I’ve made a career of studying how they are built and why they fail. I share Alexander’s vision for how things might be and appreciate Shakespeare’s timeless understanding of the human condition.

Perhaps I’m hoping for too much. At least I’ve answered the question of why, for this inspector, no house is perfect.


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