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Building Operations

( Originally Published 1924 )


Who takes the initiative in the building of the largest number of private dwellings? Why can the real estate dealer render special service in building? What equipment should he have? Indicate what factors he should seek to determine by a study of the market before he launches a building program. What are some legitimate methods of economizing in the construction of the small house? Indicate some of the ways in which a dwelling may be so laid out as to make it convenient. Why is the architectural design of a house important? What errors are likely to be found in the construction of foundations? Of walls?

ONE of the activities of the real estate dealer is that of building homes. Anyone who is interested in the development of real estate can see the possibilities that lie in such activities. They have always been a powerful ally of the subdivider, and more recently a large number of other dealers have found themselves for one reason or another involved in a building program. This is a natural development in the business, and is to be encouraged. The dealer who launches a building program, however, should do so intelligently and not as a hit-or-miss plan; he should go into it after careful thought and planning or not at all. There are a number of reasons why he may decide to undertake a building program, but it must be admitted that in many cases he initiates such a program without any reason, except a vague hope that building will add profits on the ledger. This hope is frequently realized, but sometimes with other consequences which are of more significance than the profits.

The only justification for the dealer's undertaking such a program is the possibility of his rendering some special service. He ought to take careful stock of his equipment before he proceeds and unless he can perform the functions of the builder better, that is, give his purchaser a better house at the same cost or the same house at a smaller cost, than other agencies, he will find it difficult to justify his operations. In order to make such a check, he must survey the existing agencies and frankly compare their service with his own.

Existing Building Agencies. The ordinary building operation is carried on (1) by private initiative, on the part of the home seeker, (2) by the contractor, (3) by the speculator, or (4) by the real estate developer. Private initiative of the home seeker is a desirable method of building, provided the services of an architect are employed. In some cities it is almost impossible to build without the aid of an architect who knows local building regulations, but much building is carried on without such assistance. The objection commonly urged is that the services of the architect are too expensive. While the architect in many ways more than justifies the fee which he charges, when the strictest economy must be observed, it is sometimes not a question of justification of the fee; it is impossible to pay the additional cost. In these cases the private individual is likely to make errors in construction. His plans may be wholly unsuited to his needs; the building is likely to be ugly and poorly arranged.

In order. to give the small builder the advantage of good plans and the architect's advice a number of services have been organized, including the Architect's Small House Service. These services decrease the cost of the architect's plans, and at the same time make it possible for the builder to increase the architectural beauty of his house. Such services, however, do not take the place of the employment of the local architect. He is the person who is best acquainted with local building requirements, with the climatic conditions and the methods of adapting a building best to the climate, and with the peculiar local conditions which make variations from the uniform plan desirable. Construction under the auspices of the local architect is, therefore, the most advisable method.

The second agency for the construction of buildings is the contractor who builds to sell. The contractor is an artisan, a man who follows the instructions detailed on the plan given him. It is his function to build, not to plan. He gathers materials and labor and constructs ac-cording to specifications. It is not within the scope of his ordinary activities to conceive in advance the structure which he builds; he builds according to the conception of another. Consequently when he attempts building on his own account, the results are not necessarily satisfactory. Imagination is likely to be left out of his plans, beauty to be unconsidered, and sometimes the building is so laid out as to be wasteful of materials and labor. Of course, this is not true of all contractors who build on their own account, but there is a great tendency for it to be so.

Much of the building of homes is carried on by the speculator who builds and sells in the hope of gains. Frequently such a builder stints on materials and other-wise builds in such a manner as to cause dissatisfaction upon the part of those who use- the house and suffer from its faulty construction. Fortunately these practices are not universal among speculative builders and the regulations of many cities-curb such tendencies more or less effectively, but that they are not uncommon can be seen in numerous cities by observing houses that have grown old before their time through sagging of sills, cracking of plaster, and misfitting doors and windows. When profit becomes the determining consideration in building, as in any other undertaking, quality is likely to suffer in the face of expediency and cheapness.

The same criticisms may be made of the real estate developer who builds solely for the profits he may receive. A succession of cheaply constructed houses that have arisen within the past few years, built but to make a good showing and a quick sale at a large profit, already condemn their builders by high depreciation and unsatisfactory service. It is to be hoped that city and state building codes will be made so strict as to eliminate such builders from the field.

Equipment of the Real Estate Dealer. In many ways the real estate dealer is in a position to render the best service of any of the agencies engaged in building operations. Some of his special equipment comes to him in the regular course of his business, such as the knowledge of what people want in the house, but other equipment he must learn either by study or experience.

(1) He ought to be familiar with different types of building materials and their adaptability to certain purposes. Not infrequently such information will result in savings to his customers and in better satisfaction. A knowledge of these materials may be obtained by reading the literature of the different manufacturers' organizations and other bulletins published from time to time from such sources as the government Bureau of Standards.

(2) A knowledge of methods of construction is indispensable. Unless the builder is able to judge methods of construction, he is at the mercy of the contractor or work-men on the job. He ought to be able to check at every turn the manner in which his house is being built and be sure that he is getting thoroughly sound construction.

(3) A knowledge of landscape architecture serves a valuable purpose for the man who is in the business of building. It enables him to fit his houses to and into their surroundings. It has been suggested that if a check were made of all the residences in any of our cities and each were judged critically as to its fitness, its construction, and as to all the other qualities which a house ought to possess, the results would be disappointing even to those who realize that our architecture and home building are not what they should be. Fitting a house into its setting adds to the whole home an appropriateness that is an essential factor in beauty. It consequently adds to the sales value of the home.

Services the Real Estate Dealer Can Render in Building. In possession of such special equipment, the real estate dealer is in a position to render definite, tangible services to his customer which justify his assuming the duties of building. In the first place, when his operations are on a large scale (and they are likely always to be on a considerably larger scale than those of an individual), he will be able to make savings in the cost of labor and materials by purchasing in quantity, just as the merchant whose volume is large can buy more economically than the one whose volume is small. In many cases this saving alone will cover the normal profit of the builder. Secondly, extensive operation enables the use of special methods and services at a cost which is not prohibitive as it would be for the individual builder of the single dwelling. This removes the objection of ex-pensiveness of the architect's services.

Again he may make savings by careful letting of his contracts. In case he has his own building department, he can make a saving of the construction profit. If he has no such department, he may make savings by letting each type of contract to each subcontractor rather than giving the whole contract to one person. Thus he lets the contract for plumbing to one man, for masonry to another, and so on. Finally, the greatest service of all which the real estate dealer is equipped to render is that of adapting the building which he constructs to the demands and needs of the market.

It may be urged that many of these savings may be effected by any of the other agencies, and that is true. But the dealer is in a position, as is none of the other agencies, to feel the pulse of the market and to know not only what is salable today and desirable today, but also the trend of the market—what will be popular tomorrow. It is not generally recognized by the public that the individual builder is usually so interested in getting the particular house which will fit all his idiosyncrasies that he forgets this point of adjusting his house to the general demand so, as to give it a large resale value. It is true that his particular type will fit his own desires best. But on the other hand, each one of the special features that endear the house to him may destroy its attractiveness to the prospective buyer. If there is anyone who should be able to determine the features which appeal to the most people, it is the dealer who is selling houses to the public every day. In this respect no other agency can render the service which he can give.

Preliminary Considerations. Four preliminary considerations should be determined before the launching of a building program : (i) a careful study of the market should be made so as to guarantee the wisdom of the venture; (2) the prospective site or sites should be carefully studied in order that they may be properly utilized; (3) means of financing both the operations and the purchase of the home by the customer should be provided; (4) the probable effect of the program upon the business of the dealer should be forecast.

Business is no longer carried on in a haphazard manner by the most successful. In every phase accurate de-termination of the factors essential to success precedes important decisions. The manufacturer no longer builds his factory and employs his laborers in the hope that he will find an outlet for his finished product; the probable demand is first studied and forecast as accurately as is humanly possible so that his product comes to meet a determined market. The progressive retail merchant no longer buys large orders of special "bargains" that will clutter up his shelves for months or even years; keenly sensitive buyers analyze the market and make purchases exactly to fit it. The merchant's success or failure frequently depends upon the accuracy with which such fore-casts are made. It is plainly of great importance that the builder forecast his market with all possible care. His commodity involves the expenditure of large amounts, and if his money is tied up in houses that will not sell, he will face a serious situation.

An analysis of the market should attempt to discover who the prospects are and their number. This seems obvious, but is frequently overlooked. In some cities the logical market for which to build would be the industrial class; in others, the greatest need would be found for exclusive high-priced houses; while again the need might be almost solely for homes of medium price.

Such an analysis of the prospective market will also reveal its extent. In some places and at some times, the need is greater than at others. The prospective growth of the city and its nature should be carefully analyzed to determine whether demand, if it already exists, is likely to be steady and persistent enough to justify the pro-posed program. Simple merchandising principles demand a careful analysis of the market before the dealer is committed irretrievably to a building program.

The builder need not stop, however, with satisfying the need that is already expressing itself ; he may act as the developer of his community in leading the way toward progressive improvements. In thus developing the standards of his community he is making a very substantial and desirable contribution to its welfare. In order to do this successfully, however, the builder must know very accurately how far he can go and take the public with him. Disaster awaits him who is over-aggressive. A glance at the standards demanded today in dwellings as compared with those required a brief generation ago indicates the possibility for leadership in this direction.

One other factor of the market must be carefully studied and followed. After determining who his prospects are, how many they are and what they want and can be made to want, the builder must weigh very carefully their ability to pay. Many disasters have occurred be-cause houses which were built for a certain market were built at too great an expense, or too cheaply. It has been found by experience that the market very eagerly responds to any offering of homes that is within the possibility of those who make tip the market. But the financial consideration is one which every prospective home owner is obliged to keep constantly in mind. The heart of the builder's problem here is to adjust the cost of the home to the ability of the customer to pay. Everyone wants "all the modern conveniences" but few are able to pay for them. It is by a constant study of the market that the builder will become able to differentiate between the passing fad and the stable conveniences which have be-come necessities in the American home. A constant change is taking place here, and it requires continuous effort to keep abreast of the changes.

The builder who eliminates the standard conveniences which have become necessities destroys the sale value of his house; he who follows the passing whim too closely increases his costs and builds an article for which the market is all but stable.

Selecting' the Site. Another important preliminary consideration is that of selecting the site. Many grievous errors have been committed by the selection of a wrong site. A real estate dealer recently built cozy brick bungalows in a location near a railroad track. Across the track stood two small factories. His houses were failures because he had chosen the wrong site for houses of this kind. For the relationship is reciprocal. The right house for one site is not the suitable one for an-other. Doubtless cheaper well-built homes for laborers would have been successful in the case just mentioned, or the bungalows might have been sold very readily if they had been in a section desirable to those who were able to pay for them. Located as they were, they were inevitably failures. Houses, moreover, must be built so as to fit their surroundings. A house up on a terrace should not be so designed as to emphasize its height, nor should a bungalow be placed on a low lot. We are just beginning to appreciate the fact that the house is but a part of the home, and in order for the home to be most attractive, the house must be considered in relationship to the whole. It can never be considered apart from its environment.

Financing Building Operations. Perhaps the most difficult problem connected with building is that of financing. It has two different aspects : that of financing the actual construction operations and that of financing the purchaser. Large financial resources are necessary in order to build on a large scale successfully. Building loans, made upon the value of the land and the proposed building, can be secured if adequate insurance is taken out and the building plan is sound. But outside capital cannot be depended upon solely. Those who furnish material and labor are entitled to their pay, and their pay constitutes a first lien upon the buildings which they construct. It is essential that finances adequate to meet these bills be provided for in advance of the operation. As in the case of other real estate transactions, the greatest difficulty in the way of selling a house is financing the purchaser. One dealer has worked out a plan by which houses can be sold on the payment of one per cent of the price down, and one per cent a month. As fast as he can build homes, they are sold because he is able thus to finance them. This is an unusually liberal plan. The best terms that can be offered by most dealers is an initial payment of ten per cent, and one per cent a month. Safety on the part of the builder seems to dictate the payment of ten per cent down. Of course, the builder must at all times be safe, but the solution of his problem is not to be found in his remaining safe; rather in his evolving some plan by which he can sell. Probably it is not too much to say that the success of the whole building plan will be determined by a well-developed plan of financing the purchaser.

Finally, the dealer should consider the effect which building operations will have on his other activities and on his organization as a whole. The reason why so many subdividers have developed building departments is that it contributes much to the progress of their whole project. The homes which are constructed on a new plat increase its value, in fact, establish its value. There is a considerable feeling that the subdivider in order to do his job properly must not only lay out the streets, but must stay at the job until the whole subdivision is a habitable community of homes. Doubtless other organizations than those of subdividers have been stimulated and profited by the addition of a building department.

Requirements the Satisfactory Building Must Meet. The finished product of the builder must meet a great many requirements of building codes and zoning ordinances, so that the mere enumeration of all these would take up more space than can be given to the subject here. It may be mentioned in this connection that the builder must be very careful to comply with all such codes which cover minute details of construction. The object of these rules is to protect the community from extra fire hazards, unsanitary crowding, and other undesirable conditions, which would inevitably arise if the individual were left to build as he pleased. The technical requirements of the builder's locality should be carefully studied and complied with.

In addition to the legal requirements, however, there are three other tests which every building can be expected to meet : (1) economy, (2) convenience, (3) beauty. None of these requirements can be overlooked nor disdained if the building is to have its greatest value. In some buildings one of them is overstressed to the neglect of the others, while all t00 frequently one or two will be altogether missing.

Builders are commonly condemned, for example, for sacrificing every other feature for the sake of economy. Economy is necessary in buildings of any kind, and especially in buildings for the ordinary purchaser, but a clear idea must be kept in mind as to what economy means. It is frequently interpreted as meaning parsimonious savings effected by the dubious methods of substituting cheap materials, or the elimination of features that are sorely needed, but which will not be missed in the completed structure, such as firestops and sufficient bracing in the frame house. This conception is wrong; it confuses economical construction with cheap construction. For cheap construction usually means poor construction, and poor construction is never economical. The test of economy is not in original cost alone, but in the original cost compared with the length of time the structure will last, the cost of maintenance and upkeep, and the satisfaction it will give in the meantime. As a matter of fact, the total cost of a building is not the amount it takes to erect it, but what it takes to build it and keep it in good repair during the whole of its lifetime. The distinction here is that between the seller and the buyer. The man who builds merely to sell and to reap a profit is concerned only with original cost so long as the selling value is not impaired by stinting. The buyer expects as a rule to live in the house; he is as Much concerned with long life and small upkeep as with the original cost. The dealer who expects to build up a solid business on the basis of service cannot afford to dump on his customers houses that will depreciate so rapidly as to be practically worth-less in a short time. Such dealings will return to plague him, as they have already stigmatized the entire profession on account of the activities of the fly-by-night operators.

But there are a number of legitimate ways of economizing in building; the dealer who knows these again justifies his activities by the savings he makes.

A knowledge of construction methods and materials gives the key to most of these savings. Typical of them is the saving effected by cutting down the amount of waste space so common in buildings of ten or twenty years ago. Closets can be tucked away in unobtrusive corners with a saving in floor space; floor space in the different rooms can be adjusted to the exact demands of each room. The wide wasteful kitchens and closets of former days indicate how great a saving can be made in this way. The novice is inclined to lay out a plan that calls for numerous corners and broken lines; each of these variations costs extra labor and sometimes special material with consequent increases in cost. Buildings laid out on straight lines may be just as beautiful in design and as useful in layout; and the saving made in construction is considerable.

Another legitimate economy lies in the selection of the conveniences. It has already been suggested that waste-fulness frequently results from the installation of expensive specialties which can hardly justify themselves on the basis of the service they give. The man who builds only once in a lifetime is not in a position to pass final judgment on these devices. Some experienced men have found that great savings can be made by standardizing the interior of a house and varying the exterior. Different roofs and entrances give sufficient variety to create satisfaction on the part of purchasers, while the standardized layout greatly cuts the cost of building.

Convenience. Convenience is a feature in the house which can be secured at no cost at all; as a matter of fact, it may work an actual saving. Experienced builders have come to realize the importance of convenience, inasmuch as the woman usually makes the final decision in the selection of a home, and convenience is one of the features which appeals most to her. Long hallways, superfluous doors and kitchen space, the stringing out of rooms so that long spaces must be covered in order to pass from one part of the house to the other—these faults in arrangement make extra steps for the housewife. This point is well expressed in the following words in a book-let recently issued by a large manufacturer's association 1

Conservation of time and energy are considerations of first importance in the conduct of household operations ; consequently convenience is absolutely indispensable. It does not, however, result accidentally ; it is the outcome of thought, care, and study.

Some of the features contributing to convenience are mentioned, such as "the front door can be easily reached from the kitchen without passing through more than one other room ; bedrooms are located close to the bathroom and open into a small hallway instead of into the living room directly; . . . the entrance to cellar stairs is close to the kitchen ; . . . grade entrances are provided so that kitchen and cellar are entered through the same door ; . . . provision is made near the kitchen entrance for the refrigerator."

As indicated in this quotation, convenience is not a matter of chance; that is, why the building planned by the novice is liable to be poorly arranged and inconvenient. Careful observation and thought are necessary in order to assure convenience in the layout of a house, but the saving in labor to the housewife and the increased salability of the house repay the thought. What has been said about the convenience of the house as a whole applies also to the layout of the different rooms in the house. Study and thought will reveal that a particular arrangement of the sink and the range in the kitchen will be more convenient than some other arrangement. Valuable material on this subject may be had from the Home Economics Division of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Washington, D. C., from the Better Homes in America, 223 Spring Street, New York, and from the Architects Small House Service Bureau, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Beauty. An erroneous impression prevails in many places that houses to be beautiful must be expensive. It has been taken for granted that the beautiful home is the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy, and that the only consideration concerning the small home is that it be substantial and follow the prevailing type of construction. Subdividers and other large builders have frequently constructed long rows on rows of identical dwelling units, planned for a maximum of space, but for a minimum of attractiveness. Individual builders have been content to build rectangular boxes with lids. But this practice is passing. Beauty is an element that may be embodied in any house with little expense. The house that costs little may have to omit some of the factors contributing to beauty, but thought and care can accomplish much in beautifying the least expensive dwelling.

There are two factors in the beauty of a house, design and environment. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the various types of design which have received general approval from the American people. The reader will call to mind at once different types of colonials and bungalows. Time has tried the various types of architectural design, and they have been found satisfactory through long periods. Passing whims such as that vogue in America some fifteen or twenty years ago that resulted in the addition of cupolas, curves, and gimcracks, usually produce monstrosities. Tradition builds up the style of design that best expresses the people who originate it. In general it pays poorly to attempt great variation from acknowledged types.'

In addition to the choice of design, the execution of the plans sometimes makes or mars the beauty of the house. False economizing on materials so that ugly common brick protrude within a foot of the front of the apartment, glaring ugly colors used in painting the exterior,—a hundred other offenses could be mentioned that detract from the beauty of the home. The dealer who employs a competent architect will be saved from these errors.

These errors also destroy the beauty of the city—the environment of the home. Subdividers generally recognize the importance of pleasant surroundings, good views, and careful landscape gardening. Other dealers who build should appreciate it also. The furnishing of the interior, in so far as the builder is obliged to furnish it, contributes to the same element of beauty in the home. As culture increases, the appreciation of these factors increases, and they play an important part in the value of a home.

Common Errors in Cheap Construction. It would be impossible to enumerate the errors that may be made in construction of a house. If a contractor is determined to give less than he bargained to give, it is difficult to prevent it. Considerable experience is necessary in order to detect cheap construction, but there are several simple observations which will help to discover defects. The honest, reliable contractor is the best check to be had; in case the dealer operates his own department, he can pro-vide for honest construction. Otherwise, he will have to inspect carefully the work being done.

Cheap construction usually shows first in the foundations. Building codes in cities specify the thickness of foundations, but the strength of the material used may be less than it should be. "Footings" may be poorly constructed or of insufficient width, or drains put in so as to be ineffective. The results of such poor construction of foundations is that they give way or settle more or less, to the distress of the whole structure. The walls which the foundation supports also settle and warp, the plaster cracks or falls off, gutters sag and spill, windows and doors soon lose their alignment because the walls have warped, and they refuse to move or show large unsightly cracks above or below. Fortunately in many localities such errors are eliminated by strict building codes.

Savings are sometimes made at the expense of the walls. The specific form which such defects take depends upon the material originally used. Perhaps the largest number of errors are made in the use of lumber, when necessary bracing is omitted and the wall members are insufficiently nailed or lumber is used which is not sufficiently dried and consequently shrinks and warps. Errors in the use of concrete and brick consist in using concrete that is too "thin" a mixture or mortar between the brick that is made so hastily that the lime is not sufficiently slacked or too "thin" and quickly cracks and deteriorates. Firestops are sometimes omitted, so that the space between the outer and the inner walls stands open from the foundation to the attic. As a result, in case of fire starting in the basement, the walls serve as flues that spread the fire. The results of the poor construction of walls are as undesirable as those coming from poor foundation construction. The fire hazard is increased; the walls soon lose their alignment, or other deterioration sets in to destroy the resale value and the satisfaction in the house.

Other evidences of flimsy construction may be detected in the roof and in the hardware or fixtures used. The roof may be poorly laid, firestops omitted, cheap material used, such as common shingle nails that will rust out and loosen the shingles, or the roof boards may not be properly laid. Cheap fixtures may look well at the time they are installed, but they soon give way, tarnish or rust, and cease to give satisfaction.

While this list of errors in cheap construction is by no means exhaustive, it may serve as an indication of the methods used in an attempt falsely to economize. Careful inspection and honest effort are the only means that will insure good substantial construction.


1. Building of homes is an important function which the real estate dealer is especially equipped to perform. It is usually performed (i) by private initiative of the home seeker, (2) by the contractor, (3) by the speculator, or (4) by the developer.

2. In order to equip himself properly for launching a building effort the dealer should possess (i) a knowledge of materials, (2) a knowledge of methods of construction, and (3) a knowledge of landscape architecture.

3. The builder is able to make savings which more than justify his launching a building program. (I) He is able to build in quantity ; (2) he can secure expert services which the individual builder would find impossible; (3) he knows, through his experience in selling, what people want in a house.

4. In undertaking a building program the dealer should carefully analyze his market so as to determine its extent, the character of houses demanded, the kind of site he should choose, how to fit the building he erects to the site, and how to finance the whole program, including the purchaser.

5. The satisfactory building, in addition to meeting all the requirements of building codes, must be economical, convenient, and beautiful.

6. Some of the commonest errors in cheap construction are (1) poor or inadequate foundations ; (2) faulty wall construction; (3) poor roofs, and (4) cheap hardware.

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