Why Use the Best Lumber in a House That Won’t Last?
A Freakonomics Radio listener named Kevin wrote in response to our recent episode called “Why Are Japanese Homes Disposable?” First, here’s a quick summary of that episode:
It turns out that half of all homes in Japan are demolished within 38 years — compared to 100 years in the U.S. There is virtually no market for pre-owned homes in Japan, and 60 percent of all homes were built after 1980. In Jiro Yoshida’s estimation, while land continues to hold value, physical homes become worthless within 30 years. Other studies have shown this to happen in as little as 15 years.
And here’s what Kevin had to say:
I used to work building really expensive houses in Canada. The really rich people would buy A-grade lumber to build their houses, which would otherwise go to building furniture or things where the quality of the lumber really “matters.” Good lumber is nice to work with but it’s not really necessary to put perfectly straight studs in your walls. Any good house framer could tell you that as long as you accommodate the slight imperfections in the wood and pick the right pieces for the right purpose, it is fine.
Anyway, there were a few houses I worked on where we got J-grade lumber, which is lumber that is destined for Japan. It is a grade above A-grade that you can’t even buy at a lumber yard. You have to know someone at the sawmill and buy it directly from there. The J-grade lumber is perfect. You don’t have to check for anything because it is all straight and knot-free. You could make beautiful furniture with it if you were inclined. We were making houses that were designed to last at least 100 years at least. It’s unfortunate then, that all the best lumber is going into houses that will be demolished in 38 years.
I think the argument was that the cost of shipping the lumber was at least the cost of the lumber itself, so it made sense to buy the best lumber possible considering the high transport costs. Maybe it has something to do with currency differences as well or maybe it takes less lumber to build the smaller houses. Regardless, the best lumber in Canada (and likely the U.S. northwest) goes to Japan so they can throw it away in 38 years. Thank you, capitalism.