The house I live in is 220 years old, having survived storms, fires, and droughts and having experienced the emergence of petroleum, electricity, automobiles, plastics, and nuclear power. It has been repaired, enlarged (around 1800), plumbed, wired, gutted, remodeled, insulated, and restored by generations of inhabitants—adapting to meet changing technologies, needs, and fashions. Most recently, this house, which began life without electricity, central heat, or plumbing, was outfitted with wireless Internet access. Through its adaptation, the hewn beech frame, spruce rafters, wide sheathing boards, two chimneys, and dry-stone foundation have all survived, attesting to the durability of these systems and the house they collectively form. It is reasonable to expect that the house will last another hundred years—surviving past the end of the petroleum age.
What is it about this house that has enabled it to last so long? How have the monasteries in France and the ancient temples in Japan survived as long as 1,000 years, and how have some buildings in other parts of the world survived millennia longer? And conversely, why are many of the tract homes and shopping malls going up today unlikely to make it to 50 years?
This article examines building durability—what it means, why it’s important, and some strategies for achieving it. While the article relates to all building types, many of the examples are drawn from light-frame construction, where durability is a particularly vexing issue. We take a look at durability issues relating both to building systems and to their component products and materials.