This was written in 1875 by Henry Hudson Holly1
Our materials, climates, and habits differ enough from those of Europe to demand a distinctive change in their use and arrangement. For example, in European countries, wood, a most valuable building material, is rare and expensive, while in most sections of our own it is very abundant. But instead of using this in accordance with its nature and capacities, we have stupidly employed it in copying, as exactly as we can, details of foreign architecture which were designed with reference to the constructive capacities of brick and stone. Hence we see rounded arches, keystones, and buttresses of wood… Fortunately, our people are beginning to recognize the folly of such unmeaning shams, and when stone or brick is adopted, it is treated as such; and when the wood is employed, we are properly commencing to show details adapted to its nature. Until, however, we come to possess a vernacular style, we must content ourselves to copying; and the question arises, which of the innumerable systems is best suited to our requirements?
Architecture and construction practices are regional and cultural. What works gets repeated and over time it becomes so common that people forget why things are done a certain way. This is known as vernacular architecture.
The history of construction materiality goes something like this: the only structural materials available were stone, brick, and wood. The gaps in the structure were then infilled in with sticks, mud mixed with horsehair, animal dung, plaster, or more wood and brick if you could afford it. Houses were heated and meals were cooked with open flames and because of this they often burned down.
Due to that last fact, people preferred stone and brick homes if they could afford them. That’s architecture for 98% of human history (time since the invention of stick framing divided by time since the neolithic revolution) and largely the period in which Europeans developed their construction technologies and prejudices.
The US developed in a climate where there were endless virgin forests that weren’t exhausted until after WWI. There was a lot of construction technology innovation as well. Balloon framing (or at least it was popularized here), platform framing, skyscrapers, steel, the twists (now deformations) in steel-reinforced concrete, slurry walls, fast-tracked construction, etc. were all invented here.
The materials available to us, what works for our more diverse climate, and subsequently what became our regional vernacular, are different. For a similar but different timeline check out Japan’s construction and home preferences.
Regarding the timber frames being in a comparable price range with the bricks. This is likely semantics, but it’s a good jumping-off point – timber frames are far more expensive than what we typically build, and hence are rarely used as a structural system today. They’re what you think of when you think of old Medieval towns or Amish barn construction. I
t employs large timbers; 6×6, 8×10, etc. (inches in cross-section). It can be beautiful, but it requires skilled labor, many people, complicated connections, and large trees; all of which are anathema to producing a home inexpensively today. It’s also a less efficient use of timber. There are countries (Japan) and technologies (Dietrich software, CLT, glulams, etc.) that are changing this, but that’s a different topic.
The successor to timber-framed construction, balloon framing using 2x4s, was invented/popularized in Chicago in the early 19th century. Walls several stories tall consisted of long 2x4s that were assembled on the ground and tilted up.
Ledger boards would be attached to the balloon framing and floors would be built off of them. Buildings could be built much more quickly using this method because individual workers could handle the pieces of wood and connections could be made with nails. The issue with this method of construction is that it requires long mature trees.
That and the attachment of the ledger board to the balloon framing left a gap in the stud cavity which fire could and often did spread to upper floors through. For this reason, it’s rarely used or allowed today.
The successor to balloon framing is platform framing. The walls of each floor are built individually, tilted up, and the floors are built on top of them. This requires shorter pieces of lumber and the floor stops fire from spreading. This is what’s used today. Why? Because it’s ridiculously inexpensive and performs well. 2×4 stud walls are like aluminum cans. In a certain way, they’re right at the edge of being junk, but there’s also the pure genius behind their design and function.
The brick as a material is quite cheap (~50 cents each), but it requires far more and higher skill labor which ultimately makes it very expensive in the US. We also use less of it which further increases the price. The US and our largest trading partner, Canada, have lots of trees so lumber is cheap. That and the US contains quite a few very cold and seismic regions both of which do not lend themselves to masonry construction.
The combination of all the above: technologies invented here, cheap lumber, lack of existing housing supply, rapid population growth, varied climates, a shift away from heating with open flames, etc. meant that the conditions in which America developed its construction preferences were different than that of Europe’s.
The fact that we’re still building out of 2x4s is some combination of industry inertia mixed with the genius that is the 2×4 wall. SIPs (structurally insulated panels), ICFs (insulated concrete forms), or advanced framing with 2x6s are all “better” alternatives technologically.
Question: How has the history of architecture and construction in the US resulted in multi-million dollar houses being made with low-quality materials
There are certainly a lot of low-quality materials in contemporary US homes (previous IAMA that discusses this), but consider several factors:
The largest, by volume, thing that most people buy is a car. Think of how much it costs and how large it is. Now consider how many times larger a house is. If you paid the same price per pound, as Buckminster Fuller suggested and tried after WWII using idled airplane manufacturing facilities, or volume, even basic homes would cost many times what they currently cost.
We need to use inexpensive materials because we need so much of them. Europe gets around this by having a large supply of existing high-quality buildings (survivorship bias), living in smaller spaces, having lower rates of homeownership, and accepting higher construction prices and longer payback periods for commercial buildings.
An equal role to all of the above has to do with the US home financing system, which is pretty much unique in the Western world. The US has long had a focus on home/property ownership, going back to at least Jefferson’s ideal of the independent yeoman farmer.
During the Great Depression, in an attempt to keep people in their homes (and thereby keep them as “good citizens”), a few federal home lending/reinsurance companies were begun, most famously Fannie Mae. Fannie securitizes mortgages, which without going into detail is an attempt to make mortgages cheaper by bundling them together and thereby lowering the risk for lenders.
In order to securitize mortgages, the mortgages more or less need to be the same duration, credit risk, and down payment %, and so Fannie would only repackage mortgages of a certain quality, length, and so on. Throughout the 1930s until the end of WW2, Fannie’s standard mortgage (30 years, 20% down) became the norm because private lenders knew they could pass the mortgages on to Fannie, remove the risk from their books, and make money by charging mortgage origination fees.
After WW2, the GI bill gave preferential mortgages to war veterans. The Veterans Administration issued (and still issues) very good rates to veterans and active-duty military people, and the VA needed to have its mortgages repackaged by Fannie as well in order to keep its risk down.
So from ~1945-1960, there was an explosion in VA loans that met Fannie’s standards. Over time, the VA / Fannie standards became the norm for everyone because it’s simply easier to do it that way. If everything’s the same, then everything can be repackaged by Fannie, and that’s what keeps prices down.
Over the following decades, and with the creation of Freddie Mac (which does what Fannie does, but on the secondary market, another attempt to keep mortgage prices down), the 30 years, 20% down mortgage became the norm.
This change in mortgage finance also grew in tandem with the growth of the modern home construction industry, which began growing around the same period. Gone were custom-made lengths of lumber and unique dimensions of lumber; in came the standard 2×4, the 2×8, and so on. Home developers knew that their eventual customers were going to get a 30-year mortgage, so they built and designed houses to have a 30-50 year lifespan.
Their interest is in building a house quickly and cheaply, then selling it to a customer. The customer, in turn, only has a loan for 30 years and is unlikely to hold it to maturity anyway, so 30-50 years is fine. Fannie and the FHA (yet another alphabet soup agency of home finance in America), in turn, require warranties of various home construction projects – windows, doors, sealants, roofs – to last either the duration of the mortgage or some percentage thereof. Hence the standard roof warranty of 20 years, windows a little bit less, etc.
In short, while the history of American building has a role to play in the non-durability of American housing stock, the American home finance system also plays a tremendous role. That system, designed to promote homeownership, is largely unique in the Western world and built up over decades of attempts to create the ideal, propertied, American citizen.
Two of the top four mortgage originators by value in the country are federal entities (the VA, and the USDA), and nearly everyone’s mortgages eventually pass through some federal entity’s balance sheet. That federal entity likes 30-year mortgages, and it likes building products warrantied around the same amount. Hence there is every financial incentive for new US homes to be made to last 30-50 years, which is a large part of why they are built that way.
2. Mallgrave, Harry Francis, and Christina Contandriopoulos. Architectural Theory Volume II An Anthology from 1871-2005. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008
3. Gardner – White Picket Finance (2012)
4. Trumbull – Consumer Lending in France and America (2014)