Boston is one of my favorite cities. From its history to its academic institutions to its culture, it is always a fascinating place to visit. But if I’m going to revisit some of its most expensive real estate, I’d better hurry.
It turns out, depleted groundwater levels are causing the rot of wooden piles that support historic buildings across the city. In particular, homes in the Back Bay, the South End, and Beacon Hill are threatened. You’ve likely seen pictures of these nineteenth- and twentieth-century row houses. They are among six thousand buildings in the city supported by such pilings, constituting 40 to 50 percent of the city’s residential tax base.
Here’s their history: When European settlers first arrived in this area, much of modern-day Boston was underwater. As the city expanded, it filled parts of Massachusetts Bay with soil, sand, and gravel. To build on such an unstable surface, builders drove tree trunks into the fill until they hit firmer ground, then placed foundation stones on top of these woodpiles.
This technique was used until the 1920s. Such wooden piles can remain intact for hundreds of years if covered by groundwater, as they were when they were first installed. However, as the city has grown, construction of tunnels, sewers, basements, and subways has caused the groundwater level to drop in many areas.
This exposes the tops of the pilings, then air causes them to rot. The foundation stones then sink, as do the structures they support.
This story, however, is not just about architecture—it’s also about human nature.
Repairing the wood pilings can be enormously expensive. Buildings with pilings damage also sell for a significant discount. If owners learn that their homes are at risk, they are obligated to say so if asked by potential buyers. Testing the pilings can be intrusive and expensive as well.
An experienced building inspector can often locate signs of rotted pilings, but many buyers are waiving their right to a home inspection in order to beat out other buyers. The problem is that Massachusetts is a “buyer beware” state, meaning that home sellers have few disclosure requirements and buyers are responsible for the cost of repairs, which are seldom covered by insurance.
As a result, many owners do not want to know if their homes are at risk. And many buyers don’t ask.
The cost and benefit of personal character
This story illustrates two biblical principles.
One: What you cannot see often determines what you can.
Jesus called us to build our homes on the rock of his word rather than the shifting sand of the world (Matthew 7:24–27). That’s because storms are inevitable and the house on the rock is the only one that remains standing.
The same is true with our souls. When we live on and by God’s word, a commitment the world cannot see, our security and strength in Christ during storms produces a witness they can see. Our unseen prayers lead to tangible results. And God’s unseen providence guides the known universe.
Are you committed to his unseen lordship in every part of your visible life (Romans 12:1–2)?
Two: Integrity is worth more than its cost.
If you knowingly sell an at-risk home in Boston and do not disclose problems that the buyer must repair, you’ll make money as a result. But you’ll give up more than you’ll gain. Whether anyone else knows but God, you’ll sacrifice your integrity and honor.
It’s been said that the best way to know a person’s character is to see how they treat people they don’t have to treat well.
The “person” who benefits most when you act with character is you.