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Shoddy construction

Before I begin my condemnation of BlueStone Lofts and the Park Point Marina Inn, I just want to preface my position with this. I don’t mean to vilify anyone personally. I do not begrudge anyone for trying his level best to make an honest living. I just feel there has to be a voice of reason where there is none and that happens to be me on this occasion.

I’m far from perfect and I’m not a know-it-all. I simply hate this throw-away practice of our modern, disposable society. And for some reason, I still want the very best for Duluth even though I haven’t lived there for decades.

There are some good people there doing great things. In architecture and house building, it’s David Salmela and the Bruckelmyers. Builders’ Commonwealth is up with the best, too.

It is the armchair urban planner, the aesthete, the eco-warrior, the idealist and the public advocate that is writing this. That said, here is my tirade.

Am I the only person to object to the construction methods used at BlueStone Lofts and the Park Point Marina Inn?

Maybe I’m out of step with American building practices because I have lived on the other side of the pond for nearly twenty years. Here in London there is a lot of concrete being poured and ironwork going up such that it looks like an erector set. The city is experiencing an unstoppable building boom especially in the residential market and increasingly the purpose built apartment is replacing the flat conversion.

There are problems, for sure, but the only prefab buildings here are post-war tower blocks that met the needs of thousands of displaced families after the Blitz. One by one they are being demolished. New builds almost exclusively use structural steel and reinforced concrete for living accommodation that is usually finished in stone cladding, brick, glass or stucco depending on the property.

I am not opposed to timber-frame houses, but in multiple dwellings I question the durability, structural integrity and fireproof standards.
Call me old fashioned, but I read The Three Little Pigs and got the message, while many contemporary American architects and builders appear to have been deprived of the wisdom imparted by that fairytale.

In a published commentary, I advocated a university district for the college community of St. Scholastica and UMD and I supported in principle the BlueStone development on Woodland Avenue. However, I cautioned against shoddy planning and construction, citing Mark Lambert’s earlier student apartment complexes, Summit and Boulder Ridge.

While it seems the site plan and design of BlueStone is significantly better than Lambert’s earlier endeavors, the construction and finish is just as inferior. It is as if the same template was used but disguised with a false façade and a little window dressing in the form of granite countertops to give the illusion of quality.

BlueStone Lofts is nothing more than the Emperor’s New Clothes to me.

I looked at the progression of the build and was horrified to see that a five-story apartment house comprised of 100 dwellings over a parking garage could be constructed of lumber. The framing of the building resembled a box of matchsticks.

In fact, there is little or nothing about BlueStone Lofts that is either bluestone or loft but that is the deception of marketing.

Generally, all this phoniness starts to get on my nerves. Why have wood clapboarding on a house when you can substitute vinyl cladding made from petrochemical products in a region where the timber industry is suffering? How flame retardant is it and what kind of toxins are released when it burns? I don’t know but I prefer my wood to come from trees just like I want my butter to come from cows.

And if BlueStone Lofts were truly contemporary in design, they would have fitted kitchens with integrated appliances. I agree with Lambert when he said, “We didn’t build a Dinkytown” – far from it but I must demur with his comment, “We have built something great for our community.”

This is like serving a bucket of KFC as the family is gathered around the Thanksgiving table anticipating a home-roasted turkey with all the trimmings and then boasting about the fare.

And it perturbs me that the student community is getting fleeced because when the flimsy floor joists flex overhead and the paper thin walls reveal the carousing neighbors on the eve of exams the pretense of urban loft living will reveal the reality.

When the veneer of urban chic comes unglued like the cheap lino on the floor, when the fiberglass shower enclosure reveals scratches and the food spills between the stove and the cabinets results in a debit to the rental deposit – the novelty of BlueStone living will diminish as quickly as its unwanted presence in Chester Park.

I just hope the unthinkable never happens – fire.

When I thought it couldn’t get worse, I looked at a video clip showing a mobile crane hoisting a prefabricated cubicle into place at the Park Point Marina Inn which is under construction. This is taking cost-cutting construction to the lowest bottom denominator.

You don’t need to be an architect or a builder to look at this cardboard contraption of a building to see that it is rubbish and I am utterly appalled that building codes and planning and zoning permit it.

Most galling is the hype and accolades bestowed upon it as if it pays homage to the clubhouse of the Duluth Boat Club that once graced the site. The owner and general manager kept referring to “beautiful.” That is deeply disturbing.

This has to be the worst example of what has gone wrong in the building industry, fire code, building code, planning, zoning and development that I have seen.

How can these failings be publicized so openly without anyone challenging them, if not for aesthetic reasons if nothing else?

How can building codes in Minnesota be so lax that it is permissible to build any multiple dwelling out of flimsy and flammable wooden frame construction? Moreover, when City Hall revamped the building permitting process, why didn’t it rewrite the code to exceed state requirements?

These are superficial, matchstick, throwaway buildings that simply look cheap and no doubt feel cheap. Metaphorically, these are the disposable food cups and containers of the fast food industry. And when the vinyl cladding gets stapled to the waferboard walls, I have to wonder how “green” and “sustainable” these places really are.

Years ago I overnighted in the Fairfield Inn on Miller Hill and the whole room shook each time a guestroom’s door shut in the hallway. This was because the regulation fire doors were heavier than the walls that supported them. Oakland campus apartments at UMD were just as bad when I lived in them.

Fairfield is clearly disposable premises that have a predictable shelf-life to Marriot. When they have maximized their utility, the corporation will dispose of them.

It’s both interesting and lamentable that the fast food industry that America invented and the disposable society that followed have manifested in the construction industry.

What does this say about our values as a society when we lose our pride of place?

“Pave paradise, put up a parking lot” by Joni Mitchell never sounded so redolent.

When is Duluth going to wake up? What it has going for it is what the rest of Minnesota hasn’t. So, why paper over the cityscape with cheap and nasty buildings? With relatively few exceptions the city is awash with plastic coated houses and the majority of new accommodation is going up in residential subdivisions that neither plug-in to the neighborhood or enhance it.

Duluth has every reason to demand legacy architecture and top-notch planning. It is not elitist to require something better than the cookie-cutter plastic house.

Look at Canal Park if you want to see a travesty of urban planning. So much public expenditure went into making a waterfront plan that ensured a uniquely Duluth district – not one that tried to emulate New England or whatever.

Today, 50 percent of Canal Park is devoted to surface parking. The lakeshore is blighted by sprawling, pseudo northwoods-inspired motels that are totally incompatible with the warehouse fabric of the district.

The DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace stands as a fine example of gentrification among others. But instead of pursuing high density development with strict controls over building materials and design criteria, the City of Duluth and DEDA supported the influx of suburban motels that are more suitable to an Interstate cloverleaf than a post-industrial warehouse district.

Myriad opportunities to enhance Canal Park with a distinctive identity were lost. Instead of getting brick and stone edifices, pedestrian thoroughfares, sheltered courtyards and a sweeping view of Lake Superior, Duluth traded café culture and al fresco summertime dining, boutique hotels, city apartments and lofts, concealed and protective parking, studio spaces and a 24-hour neighborhood for a day-tripper’s paradise of tourist tat, windswept parking lots and roadside motels for transient visitors.

Is it any wonder it goes into hibernation in winter?

I really think this is my very own Custer’s Last Stand because as things are shaping up, the Bayfront along Railroad Street is going to be another circus.

This is the tourist market that Duluth is aiming for so what more can I say except that perhaps it’s not really my battle?

16 Comment(s)

  1. As president of the Duluth Preservation Alliance, I agree with much of your comments and thank you for writing with an entertaining and meaningful flare. The DPA recognizes the quality of the architecture from the 1880s to 1920s, in which the mindset back then was, “let’s build this to last for centuries.” Not the throwaway construction you referred to.

    The Plaza district has been decimated, it once had the most fanciful and ornate homes. If the district had been preserved it would be an attraction serving as B&Bs, shops and housing.

    Adaptive reuse of historic architecture makes sense on the environmental level as well, with the embodied energy represented in the materials and labor of the buildings.

    Glen Filipovich | Sep 29, 2013 | New Comment
  2. There are apartment buildings like this going up all over Minneapolis, all billed as up-scale, or luxury. My wife and I lived in one for a year. I was disappointed when I realized how poorly it was actually constructed.

    Danny | Sep 29, 2013 | New Comment
  3. Thanks Glen. Re: the Plaza district, I wrote this in the DNT:

    Published March 02, 2011
    Reader’s view: Replacing mansion with Walgreens hardly an upgrade
    By Doug Pazienza, Duluth News Tribune

    Last April I wrote a censorious letter after the Duluth City Council and Planning Commission decided to allow the demolition of a neo-Classical Greek mansion, formerly the Louis S. Loeb House, designed by John J. Wangenstein, and built in 1900. Most remember it as Silver’s Dress Shop.

    Let’s put this into perspective. The Planning Commission denied the developer of a Walgreens the right to build at a commercially zoned site in Kenwood. Yet a collection of historical and serviceable properties in East Hillside amounting to the equivalent of a city block and fronting two streets have been acquired and will be razed — with city permission — to build a Walgreens a mere block or two west of an existing one (“Superior Street mansion to come down to make way for new Walgreens,” Feb. 21).

    On historical preservation grounds, this is a travesty. In terms of form-based urban planning, this is entirely inconsistent. From any perspective, bar free enterprise, this is utterly illogical. How did this slip through the planning net?

    I do not question the commercial decision of Walgreens to relocate and expand, but I protest the governing bodies’ grant of carte blanche to Semper Development.

    The Walgreens blueprint is as ubiquitous to suburban America as any other: an unsightly parking lot and a single-purpose, sprawling retail outlet. Is this appropriate for East Hillside?

    The role of a progressive Planning Commission in this matter would have been to keep the existing neighborhood intact and work with developers to forge a compromise.

    Specifically, I refer to reducing tarmac area by incorporating below-ground parking and replacing displaced housing units by insisting that living accommodations be designed over the drug store.

    Had the Loeb mansion been spared, it could have, with a bit of restoration, enhanced the urban fabric of Duluth for another century. How many really believe a Walgreens will be an enduring improvement to the cityscape?

    Kodiak | Sep 30, 2013 | New Comment
  4. I see this kind of thing going on in my hometown in central California as well. Lovely old houses built in the late 19th c and early 20th c in the older part of town; you know these buildings will stand for another hundred years or more. After all, most of them survived the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. Then the newer part of town is just pre-fab crap, it looks cheap and temporary there. God help my hometown when the next big earthquake levels all those new buildings. It does seem to be symptomatic of our throw-away society, where we just consume, because we don’t understand we should be caretakers.

    Claire | Sep 30, 2013 | New Comment
  5. Kodiak, I am glad that you found this forum, since your similar but more truncated “tirade” was already published in the Duluth Mews Tribune months ago.

    Your personal crusade against wood-framed construction seems to miss a number of major issues that you would understand if you were an architect. We are allowed to build large wood-framed buildings by code because of sprinkler systems, fire-proof construction, exit plans and years of observed and empirical data on how buildings burn. Your fear that a fire in the bluestone lofts will look like the Chicago fire is unfounded and unsubstantiated.

    Speaking of the Chicago fire, how is it, do you suppose, that such a fire could have destroyed so many “quality” stone, concrete, steel and brick buildings? My point again is that you don’t seem to have a really good grasp of what you are talking about other than you don’t like wood-framed construction.

    As to finishes and construction techniques, the buildings built at the previous turn of the century were constructed when materials were expensive and labor was cheap. If it took six months to build a brick building, so what? If there was no insulation in it, that didn’t matter either.

    Today, labor is expensive and materials are cheap. We design projects based on budgets, margins, profitability and life-cycle costs. We put as much insulation in the cavities created by the wood framing as we can stuff in. I can’t say that I like many of the “cheap” materials we use and dispose of today either, but it is the reality of economics.

    If you care to put your money where your mouth is, you can become a developer yourself, and build all the concrete and steel buildings you want. Good luck with that, because you will be bankrupt very soon.

    schmood1971 | Sep 30, 2013 | New Comment
  6. I thought that the “bluestone” came from all of the bluestone that was dynamited to make way for the complex.

    I do not have enough knowledge to comment intelligently on this, but I will also note that when a new development goes in it seems like one of the first things that is done is to clear and level all of the land, including all of the trees. I’m not sure what the exact point of that is, but it is probably to ease design and reduce costs. I think it would be good to get a fairer appraisal of the actual value of the trees and other wildlife when making that cost-benefit analysis. A 20 to 30 or, heck, two- or three-hundred-year-old tree is a unique landscape feature that really adds a huge amount of broad and overall quality-of-life value to any neighborhood or public space.

    JP Rennquist | Sep 30, 2013 | New Comment
  7. Tearing down that magnificent thick brick and hardwood elementary school in Piedmont, which was built to about the same quality as East High School, and replacing it with what they did is another good example of needless waste and questionable modern construction. I guess leaving the building there and using it better wouldn’t have made some contractors quite as much money, though, we all know what counts. Jobs jobs jobs.

    piker | Sep 30, 2013 | New Comment
  8. Decisions to tear down beautiful, century old homes, like the one on Woodland outside of BlueStone, or beautiful old trees, like ditto, make new construction hard to take.

    I also really dislike the tone that the local media seems to often take on this. In the DNT today, the story is phrased in a happy, ‘you can have a new home! hooray!’ tone, rather than a somber tone that would reflect how this destruction makes me feel. The coverage was a bit more somber when Walgreens took out the beautiful, old white mansion, but usually it’s all of a ‘progress is great!’ tone.

    emmadogs | Sep 30, 2013 | New Comment
  9. Something to keep in mind during this discussion: not all old buildings can/should be saved.

    Just to head off any anger, I loooove having old architecture in Duluth! I think it’s a shame to see old buildings with unique style torn down to make way for some boring rectangle.

    However, some old buildings are just not worth preserving, as the greater good is greater than the value of the home (ex. Duluth highway construction), or the building is so dilapidated that restoring it would be more than the budget of any preservation society.

    For example, the Silver’s dress shop was much more interesting than the Walgreens that replaced it, but the building was in such poor shape, that repair and maintenance estimates were well into six figures. Yes it was a very cool building, but when the last three owners didn’t have the money/interest into maintaining/repairing it, it rotted into a structural mess.

    If someone wanted to step up to throw money into that building, then hell yeah, keep it up. But if it’s going to rot away like some old barn, it needs to go.

    BadCat! | Sep 30, 2013 | New Comment
  10. Schmood1971 -- It is all the regulatory controls -- building, safety, planning, to which I am directing my remarks. Of course, safety is paramount. I’m old enough to remember when lead was removed from paint because it is toxic. What chemical compounds comprise the flame retardants to which you refer and do they release toxins when burnt? How safe is vinyl siding under fire? Most fire casualties die from smoke inhalation; not burns. Waferboard and drywall, stringers, joists and studs are flammable. Steel, concrete and stone are not. As for the Great Chicago Fire, it wasn’t the brick and stone buildings that exacerbated the inferno -- it was the multitude of wooden buildings that fed the fire and they were subsequently banned from central Chicago.

    You write from an insular bubble. There are not many bankrupt developers where I live and they aren’t building cardboard buildings so perhaps you need to redress your construction formulae.

    I appreciate your pointing out that the costs of labor and materials have flip-flopped and that brings up an interesting point about allocation of labor and the available base of skill sets in the construction industry.

    How abundant are stone masons, plasterers, joiners and tile setters in Duluth relative to framers, drywallers and fitters? So, labor is expensive, you say. Is that to say that the building industry places a higher value on production than craftsmanship?

    Again, it can be compared to fast food. And just because it’s for sale in your supermarket or prepared in your fast food outlet doesn’t mean that it’s good for you — with USDA or FDA stamp of approval. I don’t trust those regulatory agencies, do you?

    As for building and planning regulatory controls, I think the structural criteria are too lenient. I don’t need to elaborate further. Planning is my background and I am hugely disappointed in Duluth and stated my case.

    Kodiak | Oct 1, 2013 | New Comment
  11. Or perhaps flair as in style rather flare as in torch. But what do I know.

    Soren d'Hillside | Oct 1, 2013 | New Comment
  12. Claire -- Thanks for participating in the discussion. I would be very interested in looking at your hometown online if you care to share the name of it.

    Kodiak | Oct 2, 2013 | New Comment
  13. Bad Cat -- Thanks for joining in. My intention was not to take this into historic preservation in so much as to keep the focus on shoddy new construction. I weighed this up when I posted my DNT letter in response to Glen from DPA because I wanted to honor his opinion and share his sentiments.

    Historic preservation opens up a big conversation of its own. I’m inclined to think you and I agree in principle that just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s worthy of keeping.

    But I don’t entirely agree with your language. We as a society cannot always appraise the value of something by conventional accounting measures. So, it costs $x to replace the roof on that old building. Moreover, there is not a level playing field esp in Duluth. DEDA financing subsidized many of the shoddy new buildings I referenced. How much DEDA financing has been available for historic preservation?

    And as much as I would like to believe City Hall when it argues for the preservation of the Carter Hotel downtown; I don’t. They’re saying that the hotel is an integral part of a designated historic district and losing it would detract from the whole. In theory, I agree but each property should be assessed on its own architectural merits. There is nothing prepossessing about the Carter and on that basis ALONE it should be permissable to raze it. But what’s playing out here is a pissing match between FDL and DLH and historic preservation is the pawn.
    As for your ref to the greater good citing highways. A good many Duluthians might disagree with you there. The MnDot plan for the downntown segment of I-35 was going to take out Fitgers and was going to be elevated like it is through west Duluth. Citizens organized and fought against that to preserve heritage and what we got was a better design and better access to the lakeshore.
    Equally, I take the “greater good” argument a little further because I presume you equate the general public with greater good. I don’t.
    The Duluth School Board used emminent domain to kick people out of their own homes to acquire the property to meet state criteria for acreage. I vocalized my objections to this and in the end, the Board didn’t need them afterall. What “we” got were displaced families, payouts that weren’t needed, empty houses and unnecessary debt until those properties are disposed of.

    Kodiak | Oct 2, 2013 | New Comment
  14. Actually, Kodiak, I said nothing about flame retardants. And, for the record, drywall is not flammable. In fact, we use it extensively to protect steel from fire. And we also use it to protect wood, which, incidentally, is much less energy intensive in its processing and erection, less polluting, and more renewable than steel.

    Yup, vinyl siding produces toxic smoke when it burns. So does a foam sofa, and carpet, and the polyurethane finish on your wood flooring, and damn near everything that burns. That is also why the flame spread and smoke development characteristics of materials and finishes are rated, and why the building codes address the different classes of materials that are appropriate in any given building. It is unfortunate that vinyl siding is so inexpensive that it gets used more than I’d like to see (or at all for that matter), but the environmental impact argument is both long and tangential. The economic argument is unfortunately difficult to counter because it is so cheap.

    By the way, where do you live? Isn’t it London or something? If so, your “insular bubble” comment is moot.

    I have tried to figure out exactly what your beef is, but I can not because you seem to be all over the board. Is it that you think all stick-framed construction is shoddy? Is it that you perceive it to be unsafe? Is it the planning aspect of the Bluestone project? You state that you think structural criteria are too lenient, but you seemingly have no basis or background to make such an assertion other than a “stone is good, wood is bad” mentality.

    Lastly, yes, I would say that production is valued more in our building industry than craftsmanship, to a point. But that isn’t in itself a categorically bad thing. Just because a building is wood and sheet rock instead of brick and plaster does not mean it lacks craftsmanship.

    Despite attempting to take you to task on a number of these things, I do have to give you a pass on the name “Bluestone lofts” name comment. I agree that is a stupid name and there is a conspicuous lack of either in said project. I am sure we could both go on at great length about marketing.

    schmood1971 | Oct 2, 2013 | New Comment
  15. For historical context, here’s an article about the Boston Fire of 1872 that was exacerbated by building owners who thought stone buildings were fireproof: The Great Boston Fire

    BadCat! | Oct 2, 2013 | New Comment
  16. Schmood1971 -- No, you are right indeed. You did not mention “flame retardants” though I presumed you knew what you were talking about and meant to say “flame retardant” or even “flame resistant” but “fireproof” is the word you used and that is flagrantly wrong in that context.

    You are also correct that drywall is not flammable and I was wrong to state such. I knew my comment was verbose and I was trying to address the regulatory concerns from three aspects: planning, safety and structural. In that excerpt, I was thinking of the unsuitability of drywalls between dwellings or communal hallways, etc.

    I wish you were more yielding with your own shortcomings in this discussion a la the Great Chicago Fire and why my insular bubble comment is moot.

    You know very well that I live in London. I’m well travelled in western Europe and I am American. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else for it but I have a widened perspective as a result of it.

    There are bad buildings everywhere but America is leading the way on counterfeit, low budget and cheap in the First World.

    How much personal research have you done to see that there is another way? That was what I meant when I said you are living in an “insular bubble.”

    My post addressed three areas of shoddy construction: structural, safety and planning.

    Your comments have either glossed over or completely ignored aesthetics, comfort, durability, liveability and quality.

    I’m glad that you have participated in the discussion and happy to debate with you to a point but I’d kind of hoped to arrive at a better solution to what I perceive as an unsatisfactory phenomenon.

    For the record, I am not anti-wood frame houses. I’m against the cookie-cutter, cheaply thrown-up stuff that is becoming ubiquitous across America.

    Moreover, I believe it is inappropriate to build a five-story apartment house out of wood-frame construction on structural, safety and planning grounds.

    Kodiak | Oct 2, 2013 | New Comment

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