isn’t that expensive?

25 January 2011

A common phrase that comes up frequently in my work is “isn’t that expensive?” In fact it comes up often in everyday life apart from architecture, so often that it has stuck in my head and now I find myself thinking about it every time the phrase is uttered. The one instance that put me over the top was during a discussion regarding the use of brick versus vinyl siding as an exterior material for a project. I’ll avoid my familiar tirade about my lack of love for vinyl siding (I’ll save that for a later post). So if you are beginning to follow my warped sense of reasoning, the real the question here is why do so many people believe brick is expensive? Why isn’t vinyl siding considered “cheap” and brick the baseline? I am beginning to believe that our mental baseline is set to the cheapest item and everything above that is “expensive.” This is not a question or debate over the cost of materials, but a question over how we think and how we calibrate our inner mental scale of what we determine is expensive and what is cheap.

What is expensive? Why do we use the word so flippantly? Why are the cheap things in life the measuring stick by which all other things of greater cost are perceived as expensive?

According to an online dictionary expensive is defined as

  • involving high cost or sacrifice (such as an expensive hobby)
  • commanding a high price, especially one that is not based on intrinsic worth or is beyond a prospective buyer’s means
  • characterized by high prices (such as expensive shops)
  • more than the “average” person would “normally” pay for an item
  • costly – a large sum due to fineness, preciousness

I have found that people will buy (often stated as “invest in”) other things of quality not merely for the pragmatic functional reasons but for other personal reasons. If we look outside of architecture we begin to see an alleged contradiction in the common thinking. Why does one buy an automobile like a BMW or a Lexus when they could get a “cheaper” car that would get them where they wish to go? They both have four wheels and seats. Yet since people value fancy cars, they will mortgage their children’s college fund to buy a $40,000 SUV just to park it in front of their vinyl sided house. The same could apply with restaurants or eating out in general. Why pay for an “expensive” meal when you can get basic nutrition for less. You could at least alleviate your hunger for a few bucks. Why does one need so many speakers for their stereo or home entertainment system, when you can’t turn it up past 4 anyway?

If I think about it, we as architects are not usually advocating for the more “expensive”, just the better, the quality, the durable, that which is timeless. If we truly evaluate our spending from that viewpoint, we should always be looking at making purchases that will last longer, require less maintenance or repair and not go out of fashion quickly. To me its being a good steward of our resources and contradicting the culture of “instant” and “immediate” to gravitate towards the concept of patience and investing. Didn’t you ever buy something for more money only to find that it far outlasted two or three of a similar, but cheaper substitution (i.e. shoes, clothes, furniture)?

So perhaps our American desire for a bargain will always trump higher values. Just look at what restaurants are popular – all you can eat buffets have average-at-best food, but we’re lining up to go there. There is virtue in frugality, but in many aspects of life, you have to pay the extra cost or go without.

  • Farmer’s market fresh produce over frozen, or canned vegetables (OK, don’t go without veggies)
  • Oreos over Hydrox,
  • Pop-Tarts over store brand toaster pastries,
  • Coca-Cola over Faygo or any store brand soda pop
  • Nike over those nasty vinyl/plastic sneakers Sears used to sell in the late 70’s
  • Levis over…you name it
  • Solid wood furniture over press-board junk from Wal-Mart
  • (feel free to suggest others)

There is an old adage that “you get what you pay for.” I advocate for quality especially when it comes to architecture, especially with our homes – our most prized investment. If we changed our thinking, we would be more likely to be content with what we have, move less, throw away less, buy less and ultimately SAVE more money and conserve precious resources. That is the first step towards a sustainable future. What do you think?

photos are from Jam Adams’ photostream on Flickr (used under creative commons license)

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