Disposable Buildings
Urban Crossroads #36

We live in an age of disposable consumer items. The more money one has, the more one is expected to throw away objects of daily use on a regular basis and buy new ones to replace them. This applies to a wide range of items including clothing, mobile phones, household appliances, and automobiles. Manufacturers regularly produce new models of their products that feature new designs and possibly a few added functional elements. The new models most often are intended to make consumers feel that what they have is old-fashioned and obsolete, even though it still might be perfectly functional.

Where do buildings fit within this grand scheme of things? Buildings often are constructed to last a "life-time." In many cases, they are intended to live even longer than that, to survive into the distant future as testimonies to religions, nations, events, or persons. In Jordan, we still view buildings as signs of permanence. The ubiquity of stone in our part of the world definitely has contributed to this view. Historical stone buildings after all survive on average far better than their equivalents in wood or even brick.

We generally come across two divergent positions regarding the life span of buildings. On the one hand, there is a view that not only accepts, but also appreciates longevity for buildings. This is expressed in the tremendous rise in the amount of architectural restoration and rehabilitation taking place over the past thirty years or so. Older buildings have gained a new appreciation as places in which people live, work, and socialize. As long as such buildings can be retrofitted to satisfy the needs of modern life (i.e. to allow for the installation of modern heating, electricity, telecommunications ... systems), it is a pleasurable experience spending time in them with their spacious windows, thick firm walls, well-crafted materials, high ceilings, as well as attractive interior and exterior decorative details.

On the other hand, a differing and widespread view treats buildings as disposable items to be replaced after a certain time span, which in some cases does not exceed fifteen years. This is the result of many reasons. One is tax laws that allow owners to depreciate their buildings as one would depreciate machinery or office furniture and equipment over specified periods of time. The idea behind depreciation is that these items eventually will need replacement, and since this replacement is an expense, it should be tax-deductible and could be distributed over a number of years. Once a building is completely depreciated, it offers no additional incentives in terms of tax deductions and replacing it by tearing it down or selling it becomes the preferred course of action.

Another reason why buildings become disposable is shortsightedness. Building owners, whether using the buildings or renting them out, often do not want to spend too much money on them and therefore end up using cheap materials that do not last very long. Within a few years, these buildings begin to show signs of wear and tear, and it often makes more economic sense to tear them down and construct new ones rather than to repair them. In numerous cases, however, this use of materials with short-life spans is intentional, as with certain industrial, storage, or athletic facilities that are intended from their inception as short-lived structures to be utilized only for relatively brief periods. This is due to a number of reasons. For example, the structure may be expected to become functionally obsolete in a short period of time because of technological developments; or the area in which the building is located is expected to experience considerable economic growth, and this will allow for the construction of a new building on the site that provides a higher return on investment.

Within this context of evolving economic conditions, land values are extremely important in determining how long a building lasts. In certain locations (Tokyo is one city that immediately comes to mind), the value of land is so high that the cost of even the most extravagant of buildings pales in comparison to the price of the plot of land on which it is located. Under such circumstances, tearing down the building to replace it with a new one at relatively short intervals becomes normal practice. In other cases, changes in zoning laws often allow much larger (usually higher) buildings to occupy a given site, thus making the pre-existing building on the site a poor investment that does not make optimal use of the site. Tearing the building down and constructing a more sizable one in its place becomes the financially logical choice for its owners.

There also is a psychological factor. This is related to the increasing mobility of people. For example, families traditionally stayed in the same home almost indefinitely, and those homes often would be adapted and expanded to accommodate the growth of the family. The concept of extended families that continue to live in the same house for generations has become obsolete in most societies. Instead of extended families, nuclear families now are the norm, and these move from one house to the other as the family grows, as its economic conditions change for the better (or for the worse), and as its wage earner(s) moves to other locations in search of better economic opportunities. This even applies to a society such as ours even though we do not have the opportunities for mobility that people in regions such as North America or the European Union have. Since the 1970s, and in some cases earlier, many families in Jordan have ended up spending years - and even decades - in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, attracted by better income opportunities there. As their incomes increased, these families often have acquired new housing to reflect their improved economic status. Generally speaking, families are moving from one house to another at a quicker rate. The home consequently is becoming less and less a symbol of permanence and of the continuity of family life, and more a commodity that is used only as long as it serves the family's functional and economic needs and aspirations. We in Jordan very much are moving in the direction of treating our houses the same way we treat our automobiles, as expensive consumer items that are replaced at certain intervals, rather than heirlooms to be treasured from one generation to the other.

Mohammad al-Asad

March 10, 2005