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Why Is It So Expensive to Build Stuff in America?

Brian Potter joins to explain the forces behind the slowdown of various U.S. construction endeavors, why that matters, and how to turn things around

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We’re in the midst of a great affordability crisis. It’s not just the inflation crisis. It’s a greater cost crisis of the last few decades. Everything that matters most in life—health care, housing, education—is getting more and more expensive. Why? One way to investigate this question is to look at the cost and speed of building physical things in America. We build urban transit more slowly than we used to, we build highways more slowly than we used to, we build energy infrastructure more slowly than we used to, we build skyscrapers more slowly than we used to, and we build housing more slowly than we used to. Brian Potter, the author of the newsletter Construction Physics, explains the forces behind the great slowdown, why it matters, and how to turn things around.

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In the following excerpt, Derek and Brian Potter discuss why American production has slowed, where we can see those changes, and how the Empire State Building compares to One World Trade Center in terms of construction speed and cost.

Derek Thompson: You have written that the U.S. seems to build things much more slowly than we used to. So, for example, the average time to construct a nuclear power plant in the U.S. rose from about four years in the late 1960s to about 14 years for nuclear power plants completed this century. Or you look at apartment buildings, the average time required to build a 10-unit apartment building went from about eight months in 1971 to 15 months today. And we’re going to spend the next 45 to 60 minutes talking about why this has happened and why it’s so important. But let’s say we didn’t have 60 minutes. Let’s say you had 60 seconds. What would be your 60 second answer to the question: Why does the U.S. build things slower than we used to?

Brian Potter: So at a very high level, I would say it’s basically a case of we’ve steadily made it more and more difficult to build things in the U.S. with rules and regulations and that sort of thing, and have not had commensurate technology and productivity increases that have been able to offset that. So the regulations and the difficulties and stuff like that just kind of adds more and more and more burdens over time, and there has not been an offset technological improvement to counter it.

Derek Thompson: I’m going to take that answer—and I very much appreciate that it was so much less than 60 seconds—as a kind of table of contents for our discussion. We’re going to talk first about rules and regulations, and then we’re going to talk about why, as you put it I think so clearly, innovation has not increased as fast as rules and regulations have increased. So let’s start our analysis with a very specific example. Let’s talk about New York City skyscrapers. The Empire State Building was built in about a year in 1930. The Chrysler Building was built in 20 months in 1928. You take the largest skyscraper completed in New York City this century, the One World Trade Center, that took eight years to construct, about six to eight times longer than skyscrapers built 90 years ago. So to get us started, Brian, when did New York get so slow at building skyscrapers?

Brian Potter: So if you look at the data—and this is data based on a large database of just skyscrapers constructed in the U.S. over the past century, New York, of course, has a lot of skyscrapers, so there’s a big juicy dataset to draw from—it’s really kind of a steady decrease in construction speed. The Empire State Building is actually sort of a huge outlier if you look at it in terms of square foot per year, because it’s such an enormous building that was built just so, so, so quickly. So that really kind of skews the construction speed upward by quite a bit. But outside from that, you see kind of a pretty high construction speed up until the 1960s and then starting in around the ’60s and ’70s, you start to see a pretty big decline and it’s kind of been tapering down since then, but right in the ’60s and ’70s is when you see kind of a big jump in New York skyscraper construction specifically.

Derek Thompson: Before we get to the great slowdown, I just want to hold on the Empire State Building, which is so famous in this space for being, essentially, the best example of a building we built really, really, really fast. How did we do it? How did we build the Empire State Building in just over a year?

Brian Potter: So the building was basically designed from the ground up to be really, really fast to assemble. It’s funny, if you read descriptions from the architect at the time, they were like—and they were talking about the design of it—it was like, we didn’t basically think about the design of it at all. The design is a reflection of the fact that all the elements were arranged to make it to be able to build as fast as possible, and the design, the actual “what it looks like” is essentially just a reflection of that. So basically they used off the shelf parts and sort of very standard components wherever possible. There was not really any sort of custom materials or custom shapes or connectors, stuff like that. It was mostly off the shelf, and they arranged those components in such a way that they could be just put in really, really, really quickly and repetitively.

They had a really small number of windows that they used to use the exact same window design over and over and over again. They had these sort of exterior panels that were arranged to drop in really, really quickly. They did stuff like … they had this minecart situation that they set up on every floor, because this was of course the days before forklifts and stuff like that. So they would raise the materials up and then this minecart situation would bring it down to where it was needed. So basically the whole building was essentially designed from top to bottom to be really fast to assemble, and then they just executed really, really well is of course the other part of that.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Brian Potter
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify