i’m about to let go of a precious piece of family furniture: a 1942 Baldwin grand piano. It’s a beautiful instrument, made by hand in the heydey of American piano building. Mahogany, brass, ivory, and felt assembled into a commanding focal point of the home.
The trouble is, we’ve no one left in the family who plays. It will die a slow death of benign neglect if it isn’t deaccessioned.
Products of such quality are increasingly rare, but also stunningly expensive to preserve. And unless you have a musician of real ability in your family, the ease and economy of an electronic keyboard likely would suffice. But we lose something irreplaceable in this transition to the “current model.”
We don’t build pianos like we used to, with the expectation that they will be cared for and rebuilt as their components start to fail. And we don’t build houses with the same commitment to their longevity, either. Most of those “Craftsman” houses built everywhere during the boom times probably will see their granite counters outlast their windows and woodwork. They were built to look vintage, but with newer, cheaper materials that won’t endure—like those digital grand pianos with a hollow box where the strings should be, all held together by glue.
How long should a house last? It’s a complex question and one that probably doesn’t get asked enough. We’re quick to discuss price and cost per square foot, but we rarely inquire about a home’s shelf life. Will it outlast our children or theirs? The question reaches across all aspects of what and how we build these days.
Yes, it’s a question of materials and construction. We choose the best we can afford, but there’s no life span label attached—just a limited warranty from a manufacturer. New products are enticing, but what of track records and proven performance? And will anyone maintain these materials—new or time-tested—properly?
But it’s also a question of style and lifestyle. Architects design and clients fund houses they consider beautiful and functional, but will those who come after also find them so? Or will they gut them and remake them to their taste and needs?
Nowadays, we’ve begun to consider resource consumption as well. So most of us pick and choose a mix of so-called sustainable and conventional products and strategies, hoping our choices will stand us in good stead. It’s all a guess and a gamble, wrapped up in common sense.
Of course, these questions presume we do want our houses to last, fixed in time as they were conceived and built. But perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate that goal. High-end cars are now developed and fabricated so that entire components can be replaced when they fail, taking the burden off the mechanic to dismantle multiple parts while ferreting out the problem. What if houses could plug and play new elements as easily—without demolition or skilled labor? Removable wall panels to update electrical and plumbing—or movable walls to update floor plans for changing needs.
If I could easily move a few walls in my house, I might find the perfect place to stow my father’s grand piano until my son grows old enough for lessons. But chances are he’ll end up playing some iPad piano app instead, leaving even a digital piano to gather the dreary dust of obsolescence.