About the House: Those Fabulous 1960s

By Matt Cantor
Thursday October 29, 2009 - 09:39:00 AM

I am an avowed architecture snob. This is not a requirement for being in the home inspection business. It’s just a little extra service I like to be able to offer my clients. All kidding aside, I really am a design snob and am fairly unapologetic about it. There it is. 

This is not to say that it’s nothing but criticism 24/7. Oh no. I’m a sucker for anything intelligent, thoughtful, attractive, or what is often referred to as having a “good fit,” a term used by the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander of our own UC Berkeley. 

A few days ago, I was lucky enough to get a look at something with many of these attributes, and the environment in which they resided was so surprising that I just have to talk about it. It was sort of stunning, and I don’t stun that easily.  

In these past few years, I’ve probably seen several hundred condominiums that were part of a conversion process from rental unit to ownership status. Apartment buildings, sometimes former houses that have been carved into numerous units, are presented as sets of individual apartments for sale as homes. This process is one in which poor workmanship and large cognitive omissions are common. 

Many of these places precede current codes and building practices by many years. And because the conversion process is so unlike the custom home process, it’s easy to end up with a lot that’s wrong. Let me be less complimentary than that and more specific, if I may.  

Those who are converting apartment buildings or old houses into individual units for sale are always out for profit. Conversion isn’t a beauty contest, and it’s definitely not about simply rebuilding. It’s about making a bunch of individual units attractive enough to bring in a good price. If you spend too much, it cuts into your profits. 

To pick one particularly common category (and an apt one in this case), 1960s apartment buildings (though one could really say ’50s–’80s) weren’t generally built to a high standard or at high cost. They were, after all, apartment buildings and designed to generate income with the lowest possible initial expenditure. They’re the Corvairs (if you’re old enough to get the reference) of the construction world. And while they might provide dry space, they are often remiss in elements of construction that less financially constrained building forms have had to offer. 

These buildings, particularly the ones from the 1960s had a very simple, clean, rectilinear style that we tend to think of as Retro. They were influenced by the International Style, Bauhaus and Reitveldt, or De Stijl; the Dutch branch of the Bauhaus movement. But behind all the simplicity, it’s economy again (as was, I would argue, the entire International style). Flat, undefined surfaces are easy and fast to construct. Aluminum windows were cheap and easy to install and most of the other components of these buildings (except lumber) are the product of low-cost assembly line manufacture.  

“Cookie-cutter” is not an unfair term, and, indeed, they do tend to look very much alike, allowing for some minor stylistic change over the decades. If you’ve ever gone looking for a friend’s apartment at night on a street full of these buildings, it can be a bit Brave New World.  

So there I am, beginning to examine a condo in just such a building when, after a few minutes I begin to get this itchy, sweaty, disoriented feeling. Was it the flu? Something I ate? Too much Fox News? No. It was the building. It was, well, great. It was really, really great. They had fixed just about everything. They had repaired, renewed, augmented and addressed their darling, sweet hearts out. They cared.  

The place that this realization began was very odd and funny, but it was very specific. I was looking at what I initially thought was an older aluminum window of the style one normally sees in these buildings. But this was a double-glazed window. I looked again. It was a very similar style to the ones the building originally had. I knew because there were still two original ones on the laundry and storage rooms down at the garage level. There was no reason to upgrade those, since they worked and heat loss was not an issue.  

The new windows bore that 1960s Mad Men-look but worked well, had small drains on the exterior and were fairly well stuccoed into place where the originals had been removed. Usually, I will see vinyl windows today as they are much more commonly available and, I suspect, a little cheaper. These were not common. They weren’t fancy or expensive but they had obviously been carefully selected to show an appreciation for the style of the building; To maintain its integrity. Wow. Somebody noticed that this building HAD a style. The color, the stucco finishes, the other repairs all did the same thing. They all tried to maintain the authenticity of the building and it really added something. I was floored. 

While the kitchens didn’t have “Boomerang” Formica countertops, they did have very smart looking Euro designed cabinets that could easily have existed in 1964 and the bathroom was very nicely done in white subway tile with a sloped window sill (lack of slope on tiled window sills is a common error that often leads to serious water intrusion and the ultimate destruction of the wall). The toilet was secured in place as was the cabinetry, the sink and the faucet. You wouldn’t believe how common loose fixtures and cabinets are. New construction. Rehabs. Doesn’t seem to matter. It’s just part of who we are today. 

Despite the many nice details on the interior, the windows, the painting and the like, I assumed that this all would have its economic limits. Then I walked up to the garage openings and nearly fell over with shock. 

Now this is a building that, at first glance, looked as thought it was probably unbraced or “line-wire” stucco. Long-time readers will remember my description of this troubling building technology from years ago. 

Line-wire stucco is installed without boards or plywood as a backing and is, therefore, far less able to resist the damage that earthquakes will attempt to do to our homes. So, when I saw this building, the first notion to spring forth was that of a potential collapse when the Hayward finally does its thing (about 5 this afternoon, I think). But when I got to the garage opening on the front face, I noticed this bulging projection that encompassed the perimeter face of the three garages.  

Good God, I thought. There’s a “moment” frame around the garage openings. What must THAT have cost? Moment frames are generally built using wide-flange I-beams with welded or heavily bolted joints and deep concrete footings designed to hold the whole thing firmly in place. One then bolts the house to the frame and, voila, the house is now FAR more able to stay put when shaking forces try to knock it down. Garage openings represent big weaknesses in the sides of buildings, no different than any other large hole would be.  

If we put a big hole like that below a heavy second story that wants to move many feet to and fro during an earthquake, a collapse is far more likely. The moment frame isn’t a cheap solution, but in the case of a line-wire stucco building, it’s the best solution. And, they had done this TWICE. There was one three-garage frame on the front and another on the right side. Amazing.  

Lastly, according to records that I could not verify but was inclined to believe, they had selectively added plywood bracing panels and bolts in the lower level behind the walls of garages and apartment living spaces. It’s hard to doubt the veracity of someone who is this diligent and while I had to say that I couldn’t prove anything, you can see my logic. It’s not that hard to decide who to believe. Just look at past performance. 

I would like to believe that this seller made a ton of money on the conversion and sale of these units. Maybe. Could be. Sadly, it seems that there are more people making money by taking short cuts than by producing high quality products, so I can’t endorse this as a means to wealth. It may sound trivial and probably more than a little old-fashioned, but it just seems like the right thing to do.