In the wake of all the recent disasters: floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes; I think it may be time for America to rethink the way it builds.
The luxury of insurance and disaster assistance has given us a certain complacency towards the way we build. We build houses of sticks, concerning ourselves more with energy efficiency, appearance, and initial cost than with the quality and soundness of construction. When the wind or the tide inevitably knocks down our stick houses, we build them back the same. That is what insurance is for, we are told.
After Hurricane Katrina, my insurance rates soared, as did many of yours I'm sure. They will most likely soar again, following the recent disastrous sweep of tornados through the South. We'll bemoan the cost increases, and Congress may even have hearings about them, but we'll eventually accept them and go on with life as usual. I think it's time to change that thinking.
I've traveled in Europe and In China, where people continue to live in homes built well over a hundred years ago. Many of these buildings have survived similar disasters to the 'unprecedented' disasters we have recently encountered, and yet remain occupiable, and occupied. They were built by builders more interested in building legacies, than in building their bank accounts, methinks.
We focus our attention on largeness and spaciousness, with less attention on soundness. To be sure, it is difficult to find masons with the training and devotion necessary to build a house that will stand the test of time. Yet, that is not a fault of the masons', but rather a fault of the market's lack of demand for such talent. If our focus turned to soundly constructed homes of stone, concrete, steel, or other materials which escape my current train of thought, then masons would come forth to build them, and the industry, in turn, would provide them with the training and expertise to meet that demand.
I'm not calling for legislation to demand this. Quite the contrary - I think building codes and construction licensing focus too much attention on the convention methods, and discourage sounder methods and innovative thinking. Such codes are designed to facilitate the inspection process - the inspectors know conventional methodology, and are not so well-versed in other construction technology.
Stone is the oldest building material known to man, and it has proven itself to stand the test of time. Concrete has most of the strength of stone, yet permits more flexibility of construction since it can be casted, pre-casted, and poured in place to form the shapes we desire. Steel has many structural advantages, provided it can be protected from corrosion and other factors.
All of these materials are non-flammable, which would greatly reduce the incidence of fires in homes. Thousands of lives are lost to home fires every year, and reducing the incidence of fire would save lives and lower the cost of hazard insurance. We build with wood, because wood is cheap - in the short term. Yet, once we've constructed a wood home, we spend vast sums trying to protect against termites, water, fire, and other natural enemies of wood. Does the short-term savings really offset the long-term costs? I have to wonder.
Along the coasts, where homes are subject to the forces of the tides, homes are often built on elevated piers to permit the normal ebb and flow of the sea to pass harmlessly beneath them. A hundred years ago, we used to do likewise in the areas of the Mississippi flood plain now dammed by levees.
In the days of my youth, we used to ride though the country, and see the homes and schools elevated on piers to protect them from the back waters of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers. Even then, we were beginning to see newer and more expensive homes being built on ground level nearby. The owners and the builders of these new homes put their faith in the levees and in insurance to protect their investment, rather than using the time-honoured methods of elevating their homes above the flood. Such is the thinking of modern man.
No structure will stand forever. Whenever you put one piece of material atop another, you are merely trying to delay the time until one or more of the four Ws: Wind, Water, War, or the Will of God, will knock it down. A structure is successful if we've delayed it long enough to fulfil the useful life of the structure. That, I think, is where we fail - too many of our structures fall before they have outlived their usefulness. Methinks this failure reflects poorly on our skills as engineers and builders.
For over two hundred years, we as Americans have faced the challenges nature throws at us. For thousands of years, we as humans have done the same. We should, by know, have learned to build better and smarter than those who came before us. I think it time to rethink home construction.
Quod scripsi, scripsi.