No two words have done more to reduce the quality of our built environment than “maintenance free”. The desire for a project to be maintenance free almost always rules out natural materials like wood, iron, brick, and stucco, and requires instead synthetic materials. Synthetic materials usually try to simulate natural ones, but do so poorly. They replace authentic quality and beauty with cheaper simulations. We may not be consciously aware of it, but these simulations repel our attempts to bond with a place. The stones of Rome or the logs of a cabin in the woods call to us in a way that synthetic stucco or “fake brick” facades never will.
“Maintenance-free” means disposable. You don’t maintain it — when it goes bad, you dispose of it. Natural materials can be refurbished and renovated – wood siding can be repaired, sanded, and painted and look like new, or even better, look old. Synthetic materials are taken to a landfill and replaced. Our throw-away, disposable culture has come to our buildings, thanks to the desire for maintenance-free materials.
Further, the act of maintaining something gives it value. All of the things in our life that have real meaning require maintenance. That is not a coincidence; it is in part because we maintain them that they develop a special meaning to us. The act of caring for something, whether a person, a relationship, or a possession, creates a special bond. The act of maintaining something creates connection and affection.
There are legitimate reasons for using synthetic materials. Vinyl siding and asphalt shingles are the most affordable options for tight budgets. Yet often the maintenance free mantra kicks in even when it costs more. Corian countertops often cost more than granite ones, and vinyl shingle siding often costs more than cedar shingles.
The maintenance free mantra has become so ingrained that it is almost automatic. I once spoke with a woman who wanted to replace the 100-year-old cedar shingles on her home, which she had never done any maintenance on, with vinyl siding, because she wanted something “maintenance free.”
Our built environment has been degraded by the pursuit of low maintenance, by the decision that where we live and work are not worthy of our time. Without that attachment, without that requirement to care for our buildings, our built environment becomes just plastic, disposable scenery.