Why are houses built with different materials
August 30, 2008 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Why are houses built of wood in certain regions (U.S., U.K., Northern Europe, etc.) and of concrete and bricks in others (South America, Iberian Peninsula, Asia)? Climate would be a good explanation, except that South America and Iberian Peninsula also have very cold regions where temperatures fall below zero (Celsius) quite frequently. Examples are: the Andes, southern Brazil, Argentina, Spain. etc.
posted by dcrocha to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As far as I know, it's based on availability of materials. Scotland for example has a lot more stone than trees, so many of the rural and historic structures are built from stone. The US has lots of trees, not so much easy access to stone, so houses are built from wood. It's the same story with places that have neither, and build their homes from mud and straw.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 9:29 AM on August 30, 2008

I know in some hurricane-prone areas--such as South Florida--houses have to be built of brick or concrete or they will not last.
posted by millipede at 9:37 AM on August 30, 2008

I think hungrysquirrels has most of it. Also tradition plays a role, since many people want their houses to look like ones they grew up with, or want them to fit in with neighboring houses. Even if wood is no longer cheap, people in the northeast US still want the look of a wooden house, so new materials come to mimic the older forms in an area - for example in the northeast US there are various metal or vinyl siding products that are meant to recreate the look of wooden siding on a house.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 AM on August 30, 2008

And likewise in earthquake-prone areas, brick is death, while wood is fairly safe (and now with advanced techniques, concrete can be fine, too.)
posted by dame at 10:10 AM on August 30, 2008

Definitely availability of material, but also historical vagaries: in Chicago, where most of the city burned down in a huge fire, the vast majority of the houses are now built of brick, because they won't burn as easily. This is despite the ready supply of timber in the midwest, even after the fire.
posted by goatdog at 10:24 AM on August 30, 2008

I know in some hurricane-prone areas--such as South Florida--houses have to be built of brick or concrete or they will not last.

There are a lot of old wooden houses in south Florida, and a lot of new construction there is still wood, too. (Also, in Florida as in much of the US, a lot of the "brick" houses you see are wood-frame houses with a brick veneer, rather than structural brick.)

People have nailed it: cost, tradition, habit, availability. The phrase "confirmation bias" gets thrown around a lot here, but there is some of that going on in this question, I think, as well. Within South America and Europe, there are a lot of places with wooden houses; within the US, there are a lot of cinderblock and brick houses. Actual construction is pretty varied in most places — in the US, single family houses are mostly built with wood, but can be structural insulated panel, concrete, steel (much less common in the last couple of years as steel prices went up), etc, depending on prices and design criteria. In Europe, houses in the suburbs and the small towns may be wood or concrete/brick, depending on where you are (Scandinavia = more wood; Spain = more stone/brick/block), while multiunit buildings in cities are rarely made out of wood frames for fire code and sound-proofing reasons, as well as cost.

In the developing world, poor people build with whatever is cheap, usually beginning with a wood-based house (perhaps US-style stick-built, or wattle-and-daub, or post-and-beam, or other styles) and adding concrete block or brick as they can afford it and if they have land tenure; in some areas wood is so expensive or fire such a great risk that you skip the preliminary wood step; other areas rely on mud blocks with wood for roof beams. If you don't own the land, you build a chattel-house, made of wood so that it can be moved easily. The well-off build with concrete block for security reasons — kidnappers and thieves can't easily break into a concrete house with barred windows. And in large cities, the middle classes tend to live in big multiunit buildings, built of block or concrete, for reasons of cost and security.

There are a lot of really good books on vernacular architecture around the world — it is worth looking at to appreciate the enormous variety of solutions (including caves, tree houses, and all kinds of mobile options) that people have developed to keep the rain off and the wolves out.
posted by Forktine at 11:04 AM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you have any particular books you'd recommend on the subject, Forktine? I've always found it interesting.
posted by hattifattener at 12:05 PM on August 30, 2008

Just FWIW, I've lived in the UK my entire life and I've never seen a wooden house.
posted by missmagenta at 12:12 PM on August 30, 2008

Frame houses are more cheaply and easily built and modified. Give me a hammer and I can build a house. Might not be the best house in the world, but it'll stand. Masonry is much harder to do.
posted by gjc at 12:14 PM on August 30, 2008

Best answer: There's very little logic in traditional architecture,especially homes. Building a home is a serious investment but is usually guided by tradition and cultural identity.This is true of almost al architecture.

For instance, a skyscraper is not the kind of thing you want in the desert heat but there's no shortage of them in the middle east nor a shortage of large electricity bills to keep them air conditioned. Business culture expects big companies to be housed in skyscrapers, the same way american suburban culture expects tract housing or mcmansions.

Look and feel come fist, Climate is at best a secondary issue. You can always just stuff more insulation and HVAC equipment into a structure. Im sure many architects think of climate control as the problem of the architectural engineer must sole, not the architect himself.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:42 PM on August 30, 2008

The reading list at the end of the Wikipedia page on vernacular architecture looks like a great place to start.

I'd add John Taylor's A Shelter Sketchbook: Timeless Building Solutions; Lloyd Kahn's Shelter and Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter; and Steen, Steen, and Komatsu's Built By Hand: Vernacular Buildings Around the World. Christopher Alexander's classic A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction roots itself in selective observations of vernacular architecture, too.

For a classic book on how vernacular architecture can coalesce into entire communities, see John Turner's Housing By People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. By now he's been in vogue, discredited, back in vogue, re-discredited, and so on, but is still very much worth reading whether or not you buy his premises about self-help housing.
posted by Forktine at 1:05 PM on August 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

Frame houses are more cheaply and easily built and modified. Give me a hammer and I can build a house. Might not be the best house in the world, but it'll stand. Masonry is much harder to do.

The first is only true if wood is cheaper than masonry, which isn't true everywhere. And basic masonry construction takes no more tools than carpentry — measuring and leveling tools are the same; instead of hammer, saw, drill, and plane you need a mason's hammer, trowel, shovel, and ideally a bucket for mortar, though you can make do with mixing on the ground or on a piece of wood. Particularly if you aren't trying to build for hurricane- or earthquake-resistance, basic masonry is super easy, well within the reach of the average person.

A major advantage it has over wood for poor people is that you can build in stages over a very long period of time. So you can buy your materials in very small quantities (as few as five or ten blocks at a time, even, plus a few pounds of cement and some sand) and add to the structure little by little without much concern for the weather. Wood that is exposed to rain will rot a lot faster than concrete will fail, at least in a tropical climate. And once cemented in place, no one can steal your building materials, unlike wood and other lightweight materials.
posted by Forktine at 1:15 PM on August 30, 2008

Best answer: I've lived in South Africa were most of the houses were brick, and often stated reason for the brick preference was the presence of massive amounts of termites.

As a kid who followed around my Canadian carpenter grandfather, I think block construction is usually easier too.
posted by Deep Dish at 4:13 PM on August 30, 2008

Best answer: I think a lot of the issue is going to be time, transport and durability.

In St. Louis, for example, starting in the early to mid-1800's up until all brick construction was replaced by wooden frames with a brick shell, the majority of the houses built were solid brick. Since 1950, heating and cooling has gotten more expensive, the interstate highway system (and I-55 in particular) runs straight to where most of the US softwood production takes place and lots of the places where additional clay mining could happen is now covered with neighborhoods of brick houses.

I remember lots of brick and stone in London and York but I'm sure someone here from the UK can comment more accurately than I. I do know I saw lots of timber frame buildings where the wattle and daub was replaced with concrete last time I was there. (No idea about the formulation of that.)

Moving to more space aged masonry; a few years ago, work sent me to Austria for a week. Every day I passed this construction site where they were assembling half-meter thick concrete slabs into what clearly was going to be a hardened military bunker. By the end of the week it was starting to take shape and I realized it was going to be a traditional looking Tyrolean farmhouse. I started looking at the buildings I was in and noticed that they pay a lot more attention there to sealing out drafts, so I'm guessing that those blocks weighed about a third of what I originally thought and had an R-value that was out of this world.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:12 PM on August 30, 2008

My theory is cheap labor. Bricklayers are expensive in the US and most of EU. In Latin America they are a dime a dozen.

Except in extreme conditions, material availability should have little to do with it specially with today's ease of transportation.
posted by falameufilho at 8:52 PM on August 31, 2008

My theory is cheap labor. Bricklayers are expensive in the US and most of EU. In Latin America they are a dime a dozen.

I live in San Diego, right across the border from Tijuana and Mexico. Most of the houses in San Diego are built of of wood, while most of the houses south of the border are masonry or concrete. Cost of labor, in this instance is absolutely the reason why. Wood buildings just go up waaaaaay more quickly than concrete or masonry. For my region, just about none of the other reasons postulated in this thread hold true:

A) San Diego has no forests or lumber supplies nearby. Neither does Tijuana.
B) Tijuana is subject to the same seismic forces as San Diego.
C) San Diego and Tijuana have roughly the same climate.
D) The "traditional" building material in the region is adobe. Only fantastically rich bastards now build out of adobe.
E) The region is infested with termites.

There's also the fact that the Mexican government charges a different tax rate for buildings that are "under construction", and masonry buildings are more easily left "unfinished" for long periods of time as Forktine suggests.

For instance, a skyscraper is not the kind of thing you want in the desert heat

Really? Why not? You could get an awesome stack effect going. I agree with you about how business culture "expects" skyscrapers, but really, skyscrapers aren't logical constructions for climatic reasons anywhere on earth. The only reason they were invented at all was because of high land value.

Frame houses are more cheaply and easily built and modified. Give me a hammer and I can build a house. Might not be the best house in the world, but it'll stand. Masonry is much harder to do.

Seriously? Are you aware that light framing been in wide use for less than 200 years? I think you seriously underestimate the plasticity of masonry and skill of builders from the dawn of time until, say, the Declaration of Independence.
posted by LionIndex at 12:20 AM on September 1, 2008

Adobe (mud with straw) bricks are traditional in much of the US southwest. Dirt was plentiful, of a suitable type for making adobes, and no special skills were needed to build your own house. The whole family would work on different tasks. Additional rooms were often added later. Adobe is also comfortable in the summer for climates that are hot during the day and cool at night. Kitchens were often not in the main house.

Adobe houses with dirt roofs, and anyone inside, did not fare well in earthquakes.

Today, labor is expensive, and so is paying other people to build with adobe. The most common type of new construction for houses is frame and stucco.
posted by yohko at 10:38 AM on September 2, 2008

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