A few nights ago, my wife was driving home late from spending several days with one of our daughters. In the cold, pouring rain, about 30 miles from home, her left front wheel came completely off its hub. Luckily, it got stuck up in the wheel well and she was able to get over to the highway shoulder and call for help. The near disaster happened because a mechanic had forgotten to tighten the lug nuts when her car was serviced about two weeks earlier. When I got to the scene, the state police officer and the tow truck driver were examining the wheel and the sheared-off lugs in some amazement. As we got the car onto the truck, they both told me repeatedly how lucky my wife was that a major accident had been avoided.
This incident is a reminder about the relative consequences of poor work. With automobiles, everyone in manufacturing and repair knows that the result of ignorance or carelessness can kill people. A car traveling down the road at 65 miles per hour reveals its defects pretty quickly and sometimes dramatically. Therefore, auto manufacturing has evolved to the point of almost zero defects and most automobile service garages
now require training and certification for all of their mechanics. They also invest in sophisticated diagnostic equipment and have rigorous procedures in place to ensure that the work is done correctly. What happened to my wife just plain can’t be normal, and thankfully, it isn’t.
Homebuilding and home repair work are different. Perhaps because the consequences of bad work aren’t so imminently dire, there is no formal training required for most of the building process. Even the builder’s license itself typically only requires passing a simple test, but no training. In most places, the plumbers and electricians have to be
licensed, but in most of the country nothing at all is required of all the other building trades.
It’s great to require a license to protect you from plumbing leaks, but there is no education and training to keep your house from becoming a moisture-laden haven for toxic mold. With training and licensing of electricians, you get some protection from the possibility of electrical shocks or fires, but there is very little real oversight of the workers
who do the work that should keep your home anchored and intact in a windstorm. As a result, compared to almost any other manufacturing process, the defect rate in homebuilding is astounding, as I reported in my Fine Homebuilding editorial in 2007.
The quality of a car is primarily determined by how well it moves, while the quality of a home is in how well it can sit still, no matter what. When the tornadoes hit some southern states this week, many people there learned that their homes weren’t built very well. The place they called home–that had earlier given them a sense of security and well-being–became a death trap and tragically, dozens of people lost their lives.
It turns out there isn’t much difference between the lug nuts that weren’t fastened on my wife’s car and poorly attached roof trusses or missing foundation bolts on a typical American home. In both cases, ignorance, mistakes, and the deficient processes can kill.