The High Price of Cheap Buildings

IDF Aid Mission to Surfside condominium building collapse%2C June 2021. III

Earlier this summer, the 12-story Champlain Towers South beachfront condo collapsed in Surfside, Florida. The final death tally stands at 98 people, making it the fourth-deadliest structural failure in American history. While the engineers paraded into press conferences and experts brought onto news channels are quick to dismiss this collapse as an outlier, it is important to ask what forces are at play here, and to wonder if this is a foreshadowing of what is to come. Perhaps this is what happens when we build for economic—instead of human—purposes. 

It is no revolutionary claim to say that we find ourselves in an age of consumerism. While it is not the subject of this piece to dive into the abstract economic discussion of free-market versus consumer capitalism, one can look around and quickly come to the conclusion that economic decisions today are usually predicated on desire, not need. In other words, modern American capitalism is governed not by production, but by consumption. How is this done? By planning obsolescence. 

In 1932, Bernard London wrote a now-famous essay entitled “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.” In it, he outlines a solution to the Great Depression: government-mandated lifespans of consumer products and hefty taxes levied on “continued use of what is legally ‘dead.’” While this sounds draconian (I encourage a reading of the entire essay), much of what London was proposing is now standard practice. What was the “solution” for the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic? Two stimulus checks, with a third on the way. Additionally, the tax deductions associated with depreciation tables discourage use of products longer than their useful life, as determined by the IRS. The problem with this economic structure is that it sacrifices long-term prosperity for gilded opulence. 

For most consumer goods, that means that when a knob on your toaster breaks or your phone’s battery gets old, you just throw it out and buy a new one. But buildings aren’t quite that simple; how can the obstinacy of a physical structure be reconciled with the economic demand for liquidity? By planned structural obsolescence, which I define as using designs, methods, and materials that ensure the structural “physical” life is the same as the economic “useful” life. This manifests itself in crumbling infrastructure, perpetually deferred maintenance, and, tragically, the needless death of nearly 100 people in Surfside.

I want to make it clear that my argument is not simply that my particular preference for well-built structures is inherently better. While I firmly believe that there are compelling aesthetic, psychological, and even moral reasons for building to last, what I am trying to articulate in this two-part series is not a defense of my personal taste, but that by building disposable structures, we are leading ourselves toward a socially, economically, and environmentally ruinous future.

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