Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Narrow Bricks

Like many other things, bricks were cheapened for years before they fell out of favor.

Brick walls were the standard structural exterior of a well-built house in the 1880s. They became less popular until by the 1990s, if bricks were used at all, it was as a novelty element or a design motif. It is not that one day people decided they were tired of bricks. To this day, people like the idea of bricks. It was a long series of events that led builders to switch to other design approaches.

It started, as far as I can tell, with bricks getting smaller. This made the resulting wall less strong and stable, and it would crack more easily. This didn’t matter, not right away anyway. You could add more interior strength with a heavier wooden frame. Cracks wouldn’t start to show up for about 20 years, and when they did, they could be patched up easily enough.

Of course, when brick walls started to show cracks, owners might wait years to have them repaired. They could do so without any great risk, but as people saw so many cracked brick walls, it took away from the image of a brick wall as solid and reliable. Meanwhile, architects came to rely less and less on the external strength of a house, putting more of the structure on the inside. By the 1990s, the outer walls of a conventional house were no more structural than any other wall, and the exterior was the opposite of a brick wall. It was made of foam and plastic wrap, covered over with a vinyl facade.

That is a transition that would have happened anyway because of costs, but perhaps the first steps in that direction met with less resistance after brick walls were cheapened when they were at their technological peak. This is a recurring pattern in the economics of innovation. New technology can get a boost when the dominant technology begins to show cracks.