How long do buildings last? 75 year…? 500 year…?

How long do buildings last? There’s little scientifically sound to say on the matter, and there are hardly any studies that have fundamentally examined it. Like the question: when does a building lose its primary function as a dwelling when no maintenance is carried out? In other words, when is it declared uninhabitable or collapses? About 50 years ago, you still used to come across signs declaring a building uninhabitable, but not anymore these days. We’ve become too affluent, and it’s either demolished or renovated much earlier. With proper maintenance, a building can last a long time. Nevertheless, in recent decades, the idea has arisen that buildings have only a limited lifespan, that demolition and new construction would be better, and that even new construction has a limited lifespan. In the Netherlands, the estimate is around 75 years, but other countries also use 50 or 60 years. A strange and nonsensical approach. And to think that in the future, resources will become so scarce that no one would ever think to demolish a building. They’ll be maintained for eternity. Eternity? Indeed, various types of buildings can and do last centuries. They must. Imagine if a building lasted less than 50 years, just one generation, then everyone would have to rebuild their own home repeatedly. Meanwhile, old buildings can benefit multiple generations without needing to invest in energy and materials. How long they last exactly depends on many factors, such as the design, which is resistant to weather and protected, the location (ground movements and humidity), and especially maintenance.

So, to get an idea of how long a building or home lasts (or can last, with maintenance), we need to conduct practical research due to the lack of scientifically backed calculations, or look for examples. So, I’ve made a brief inventory.

What is the oldest visible building in the Netherlands? You quickly come to the Roman bathhouse in Heerlen, dating between 63 and 73 AD (after counting). Okay, not the entire building, only remains are visible. Besides, it’s a utilitarian building, nobody lived there.

The oldest standing house in the Netherlands then? That would be at Sandrasteeg No. 8 in Deventer, dating from the early 12th century: from 1130 AD. Almost 900 years… Another old standing building, although not a dwelling, was built in the early 13th century in Maastricht: the Dominican church, nowadays the world’s most beautiful bookstore (according to The Guardian). If you ever talk about multifunctional building, this is your example. See the text I wrote for a book about buildings in Maastricht at the bottom of this text*.

The next building that still stands entirely could be the ‘city castle’ Oudaen on the Oudegracht in Utrecht, dating shortly after 1276. Originally also a residence! Then follows a Hotel: the Draak in Bergen op Zoom, from 1396. So far, these are all stone buildings and houses. But then in Amsterdam, there’s the oldest wooden house in the Netherlands: ‘Het Houten Huys’. At least that’s what they thought, it was supposed to be from 1452. But new research pointed to 1528. Still old, of course. A house on Warmoesstraat, at No. 90, thus became the new oldest wooden house (in Amsterdam at least…), from 1485. Not visible from the outside, as it has a new facade, but the skeleton is still there. A bit further on Zeedijk No. 1, there’s another wooden house, café In ’t Aepjen, from around 1550.

In Limburg, there’s also plenty of timber framing to be found, with the oldest examples again in Maastricht. The ‘Dinghuis’ is a good example. It has a largely preserved timber frame from around 1473, consisting of several floor-wise stacked tie beam frames. Also, elsewhere in Maastricht, there are examples of this timber frame construction, like the house at Markt 71 from around 1456. We’re already heading towards the oldest wooden house in the Netherlands, But… around that Dinghuis, there are also several buildings with half-timbered constructions, one of which even dates back to 1406, at Kleine Staat 11, the oldest for now in the Netherlands, although not complete anymore. A complete, very neat and proud wooden example is also found in Sittard, near the market, in the Gruizenstraat, though a bit younger… from 1593.

Those are some examples from the Netherlands. Looking abroad, for example in Troyes, France, there are still entire streets with complete wooden timber-framed houses, all built from 1524 onwards, after a big city fire. So partly already 500 years old this year! And thus rebuilt in wood! In Germany, too, many old timber-framed houses can still be found In Quedlinburg, according to counts, more than 1300, of which 11 are from before 1530.

When it comes to generally the oldest houses in Europe, and I mean more or less complete ones, not excavations, then the oldest seems to be Knap of Howar, built in stone as early as 3700 BC in Orkney, Scotland.

The oldest wooden house in Europe would be Kirkjubøargarður, also known as Roykstovan, a house in the village Kirkjubøur on the main island Streymoy of the Faroe Islands. The house dates from the early 12th century AD and has been inhabited since then, possibly making it the oldest continuously inhabited wooden house in the world. Another beautiful (second oldest?) is Eschif in Périgueux, France. It was a residence serving as an observation post for a toll bridge. It’s an oak building with a filling of laths and daub, built in 1347.

Outside Europe, we naturally find the unparalleled city of Shibam in Yemen, the city with hundreds of high-rise houses, but then in Adobe, Mud ! With 7 and some upto 11 floors, up to 30 meters high… (without elevators…!) The oldest dating from between 1500 and 1600, the younger ones about 250 years old, but continuously maintained and adapted. With a adobe mosque, which even goes back to the 10th century. Truly phenomenal.

It seems that with good local design and maintenance, houses last for hundreds of years, regardless of the material, of course, also depending on the local climate. There’s no reason to assume, as in LCAs, that everything built now, regardless of material, will collapse in 75 years and then be dumped or burned, and we’ll start over (should). If every generation, had to build its own built environment, there would never have been progress possible…

Building for eternity should be the ultimate goal of anyone involved in building. And that 75-year rule is nonsense, no one will ever demolish a house by 2100.



PS. And in this overview, I haven’t even included China/Asia, where research has only just begun. They used to primarily build in wood until the forests ran out. After that, much was lost due to fires, particularly from the enthusiastic use of fireworks and arson by invading peoples.


*Without maintenance, homes will still stand for at least another 30 to 40 years, as evidenced by general experiences shared on the internet (depending on the type of construction and climate, of course). And I recently cycled past a recently collapsed house myself (wooden roof and tiles, see photo): a house from 1877 that was abandoned in 1990 and already had deferred maintenance then. The roof collapsed two weeks ago, as the resident told me.

See also some interesting observations here: [ ]. I also received a tip to watch documentaries like “Aftermath: Population Zero” and “Life after people”, inspired by Alan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us”. I’ll do that.

**The Dominican church… If there’s a building in Maastricht (or in the Netherlands) that serves society, which should be the highest good for a building, it’s the Dominican church. I’ve experienced many incarnations of that building in my life, and it reinvents itself time and time again. Of course, there was the original use as a monastery church. Already built in the 13th century…!! From the late 18th century onwards: alternatively a warehouse, printing house, concert hall, exhibitions, archive, you name it. When I was young, it was a hall, and I celebrated carnival there, and I even got to teach my children how to celebrate carnival there. And in its latest version, it’s even considered the most beautiful bookstore in the world (The Guardian). I was even allowed to give a “sermon” there last year, i.e., a lecture about my book on a sustainable society. There couldn’t have been a better place. It’s amazing how the circle is completed for me: from having to learn everything as a child (including carnival) to sharing all the knowledge in the latter part of my career (not yet the end :-). What more could you want? In a building for eternity, that’s what helps us to become sustainable. I would love to know how this building will reinvent itself in the coming 100 years, as a beacon of a sustainable society… From: ‘My favorite building in Maastricht’, Topos, 2021, now available as a PDF: [ ].

***Of course, older homes no longer meet the requirements of 2024. But one can also question whether those requirements are justified, given the problems we’re facing. The idea that every house should be able to be kept at 20 degrees Celsius 24 hours a day, and that this requires very little energy with a lot of installations, needs to be reconsidered. I once calculated that a house in 2000, despite 30 years of energy policy, used just as much energy as a canal house in 1900… The difference was that in 1900 only one room was heated, and only in the evening, and in 2000 the whole house, all day long. Those who live in an older home must adapt: simply heat only one room (and optimize) during the coldest period. The summer-winter home, as for example the housing corporation Domijn in Enschede has already realized. And design new construction so that no heating is needed anymore. An extensive article on this topic will follow soon. Moreover, demolishing those homes is counterproductive: they only contribute to the growth of society (not in terms of money but socially and materially), as multiple generations can benefit from them), otherwise everyone would have to build their own home every time. So it takes some creativity to live somewhat comfortably in those old homes, for example by maintaining a summer-winter mode.

(some in Dutch only)

1 lifespan blog :

2 Deventer sandrasteeg 8

3 Bergen op zoom de Draak

4 Amsterdam Houten Huys

5 Amsterdam

6 Limburg :

7 Dinghuis Maastricht:

8 Maastricht :

9 Sittard Gruizenstraat

10 Troyes FR

11 Quedlinburg

12 Scotland-Orkney

13 Faroer:

14 France Perigeux

15 Yemen Shibam

16 zomer winter woningen: compartimenteren, zie Enschede Domijn

17 Austria ‘2226’:

Author: ronald rovers