Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

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Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Thu May 05, 2011 11:13 am

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.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Schmeelkie » Thu May 05, 2011 11:34 am

Hear, hear!
Occasionally you hear about a dome-shaped hurricane proof house - but it's one rich builder-type guy who builds it for himself and even after having their houses destroyed, no one's asking him to build one for them. The insurance isn't helping - it won't pay for you to build a more expensive house. We get this idea stuck in our heads about what a house should be like, and think that's the only way. I'm not immune to this myself - despite the wide variety of ranch-style homes in this area, my husband and I agreed that what we really wanted was a colonial - and that's what we ended up with. It just felt like a 'real' house to us. Up here, you just want to avoid the flat roof (won't stand up under 2 feet of snow), but otherwise, not too much worry.

So what changed in the river areas that lead folks to think it was OK to not have their houses up on stilts?

And why is this making me think of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
....built this castle and it sunk into the swamp, so we rebuilt and it sunk into the swamp. The next one burned up, collapsed and sunk into the swamp, but this one - this one stayed up! (not a direct quote, but you get the idea)

Seems like people should realize that floods, hurricanes, etc are not once in a lifetime/century events in certain areas of the country and build with that in mind...
"Up plus down equals flat" Pumpkin, 3 yrs, 10 mo, July '07
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Thu May 05, 2011 12:27 pm

Schmeelkie wrote:So what changed in the river areas that lead folks to think it was OK to not have their houses up on stilts?


The levees. The area used to flood annually, to the same level as the river. In the pre-levee days they built their houses higher than the highest known level it had reached, and they were relatively safe. With the advent of the levees, they no longer though that was necessary - even though many of the rural areas were built with the understanding that they could be dynamited if the river threatened more heavily-populated areas.

This year, for the first time in my lifetime, they've actually dynamited some levees. They've talked about it in prior years, but this is the worst flood threat we've had apparently since the 1930s, with both the Ohio and Mississippi threatening the region, as well as torrential rains filling the areas behind the levees - a sort of a triple threat.

The short-sighted aspect of human nature meant that they put their faith in the levees, and in insurance, rather than taking the precaution of building higher. Now they, and we, will pay the price of folly.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Giant Communist Robot » Thu May 05, 2011 3:06 pm

The short-sighted aspect of human nature


People built houses on the slope of an actively erupting volcano on the big island. After lava covered their property they announced they'd build again.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby piqaboo » Thu May 05, 2011 4:13 pm

While agreeing with the general tenet of the argument, I have bones to pick with underlying assumptions of what is the model to follow to correct the problem.

Shpley wrote: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.

......
All of these materials are non-flammable, which would greatly reduce the incidence of fires in homes.


A- I've traveled there too. As I recall, last time someone gave the ground a good shaking, a whole bunch of buildings fell down on even more Chinese, killing and maiming them. No thanks.
Nor are they designed for tornados or hurricanes.
Row houses in England (my aunts is coming on 200 yrs old) would fall to pieces with a good shake or a circular wind/vacuum.
Many of them did when bombs landed near by.
I've been in several sets in different cities, and the builder was clearly thinking of very little except profit when they were put up. Clearly also, profit but not fraud. They have stood all this time, after all.

B- flammability is greatly affected by home furnishings. Concrete powders if cooked hot enough. Carpet, curtains etc burn regardless of the interior struction.
Brick falls on your head when the earth moves.
Stone ditto.

So, some thought should indeed be given, but the old ways and the 'obvious' ways aint necessarily the best ways.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Thu May 05, 2011 4:51 pm

Piq,

If you're not building in a seismic zone, there is no need to build an earthquake-resistant home. Likewise, if your geographical area is not subject to tornadoes, then tornadoes need not be part of the design criteria. My point is, we build stick houses in torndado regions, non-reinforced masonry homes in seismic regions, and ground-level homes in flood-prone areas. That's all well and good except that, when they get knocked down, we build them back again - largely because that's the only way we know how to build them and, after all, they are insured.

Smart building entails building to the conditions expected. People in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama should expect tornadoes, and build accordingly. People in California should expect earthquakes, and build accordingly. People in upstate New York should expect 24" snow accumulation and should (and do) build accordingly. People on the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Seaboard should expect hurricanes, and build accordingly. My view is that, while they do to some degree, for the most part they set their risk levels too low, and favour cheap, insured construction over strudier methods.

I've no doubt it is impractical to build bomb-resistant houses even though, as you note, the bombs produced human-induced mini-earthquakes in Britainm, where houses were not designed to withstand human-induced mini-earthquakes. War, being one of the "Four Ws" I mentioned, will tend to knock down structures before their time. Build a better bomb-proof house and they'll build a better bomb, we know that. There are limitations, to our abilities in that regard.

I don't expect every house to be the Parthenon. I merely think we've heard the story of the Three Little Pigs all our lives, and still haven't understood the moral of the story.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby dai bread » Thu May 05, 2011 6:34 pm

Giant Communist Robot wrote:
The short-sighted aspect of human nature


People built houses on the slope of an actively erupting volcano on the big island. After lava covered their property they announced they'd build again.


Were they allowed to? Never mind their own idiocy, what was the local authority doing?
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Giant Communist Robot » Thu May 05, 2011 9:13 pm

Were they allowed to?


No, they never did. You can't get there anymore as there are no roads now; even hiking isn't allowed as one must pass through areas of active flow.

I saw those people on TV saying they'd rebuild, but there's only lava there now. Not even any soil.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Haggis@wk » Fri May 06, 2011 2:53 pm

Most people live in the short term, geologically speaking. I've never understood why people not only rebuild on the Mississippi after being flooded out but why they are allowed to. I held my breath the whole time I lived in California in fear of "the big one." I face tornados in Texas but at least those are random events that happen in different areas. Earthquakes ain't, there will be serious earthquakes in California along known faults lines (and some unknown ones), the only question is when.

When we lived in California the MRHYN went to work every day across the San Andreas Fault and that concerned me greatly. She had two weeks worth of supplies in her trunk and we had a month's worth in our house. We had a written disaster plan with every possible method of communication I could afford at the time and designated rendezvous locations both within the state and in Nevada.

We now have a two-week emergency kit (we’ll get tired of beef stew, Ramen, and chili) and another kit for our car. I loaned my generator to our “adopted” family in Florida, an older couple that live in the panhandle that I think need it more than me. I’m checking Craigslist for a replacement but cost right now is a serious consideration.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby piqaboo » Fri May 06, 2011 3:10 pm

Shapley wrote:Smart building entails building to the conditions expected.

this is true, and as I said, I agree in principle with your first post,
but you did cite old European & Chinese buildings as the standard, and I disagree with your selection because those buildings dont suit our (US) needs, except for the East Coast, and they dont always work even in their home environment (esp China).

Me, I like wooden and steel-frame homes - they flex. We used to have to choose between fire resistant (spanish tile) or earthquake safe (wooden shingle) roofs, tho there are now composite tiles/shingles that do both. They are very popular.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Fri May 06, 2011 3:28 pm

The Mississippi, like the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, and other rivers provides fertile soil from which people make their livings. Others, of course, established mills and shipping facilities and stores to serve those who so make their livings. They also build schools to educate their offspring, churches to spiritualize them, and government buildings to organize them. People need to eat and they need those willing to risk their possessions and, perhaps, their lives to provide the means for them to do so.

I remember the same question being asked when I was in school regarding the reason people chose to live near active volcanoes in South America. The answer was the same: the ground was among the most fertile to be found anywhere.

People live on the coasts, despite hurricanes and tsunamis, because the oceans provide them with fish. They live along rivers because they need water and food and fertile land. They live in earthquake-prone regions because of the benefits the areas provide them. I don't fault people for living in disaster-prone regions, but I'm just saying they should learn from our two-hundred-year history of having houses knocked down and start building smarter.

This, of course, comes from a guy who lives in a stick-built house in tornado country.

All I'm saying is, if I ever rebuild and it is within my power, I will rebuild in concrete or stone. I like where live, even though the risk of tornadoes exists, as does the threat of earthquakes and ice storms. We built on a hill, well above the likelihood of floodwaters reaching, even the flash floods that sometimes turns the little creek behind and below the house into a raging torrent. We are far enough from the city to not be bothered by the problems of living there, but close enough to permit easy access when we need to access the services it offers. We don't farm, but have enough land to grow a sizeable garden should we need to do so.

I'm not sure where, in this land of ours, one could build hazard-free. Tornadoes frequent most of the midwest and the south; hurricanes strike the coasts; ice storms and roof-busting snowstorms blanket the north; earthquakes threaten many parts of the country; volcanoes a smaller part; wildfires burn and floods devastate; droughts parch and torrential rains soak; no place seems to be immune to some form of devastation. We can design homes to mitigate the damage but, always, the four Ws have their way in the end.

All I'm saying is, we should recognize the dangers and design accordingly. It only makes economic sense to do so.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Fri May 06, 2011 3:33 pm

piqaboo wrote:
Shapley wrote:...but you did cite old European & Chinese buildings as the standard, and I disagree with your selection because those buildings dont suit our (US) needs, except for the East Coast, and they dont always work even in their home environment (esp China).


I was trying merely to cite their longevity, not to encourage emulating their designs exactly. I guess I failed to express that well enough.

I've also been in parts of the world where they build wooden homes that are devoured by termites, and are constantly being rebuilt. it is a natural part of life for them - stone is rare and wood is cheap and plentiful so they live, much as wild animals do, building dens which must constantly be patched and thatched. For their world, that seems to make sense. Yet it seems to me we emulate that thinking, even though we have plentiful permanent materials and the patch-and-thatch homes in which we live are not made of such cheap and abundant resources.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby jamiebk » Sat May 07, 2011 1:04 pm

We try to build to suit the dangers that confront us. Most building "codes" are based upon that. Economics plays a huge part. I am certain that we could build a home that would resist most of what mother nature dishs out...however, the cost is prohibitive and as Fukashima points out...we just ain't smart enough to figure out all the "what if's"
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Wed Aug 22, 2012 11:16 am

Image

A man's home is his pallets...
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby dai bread » Wed Aug 22, 2012 10:26 pm

Estimated lifespan in NZ, 5 years. By then the pallets on the ground will be pretty rotten and the place will start to fall in.

One of the surprises I got in Japan was the age of their wooden temples. 600 years, some of them, and with poles seemingly stuck directly into the ground. Snowy winters must clear out the bugs and fungi that eat wood.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Thu Aug 23, 2012 12:06 pm

I-Beam Design, which created the pallet house shown, suggests them as temporary shelters for refugees, to be used in lieu of the tents commonly found. They suggest the pallets, which would be used for food, medical, and other humanitarian shipments, would cost nothing to ship (already being a part of those shipments), and would otherwise be used for firewood or discarded. They then suggest that, as cement and other products become available, they can be packed into the void in the pallets to create a permanent structure, not unlike the half-timber houses of Europe.

While we receive and discard pallets routinely, most are made of worthless wood which, when tossed in the yard, are devoured within months by insects and fungus. Periodically, we receive pallets made of good-quality, using decent hardwoods.

I recall that some companies actually have specifications on the design, quality, and materials of pallets and shipping crates. I heard once that Henry Ford specified the crate design and quality of the radiators he purchased such that they could be used a floorboards in the Model 'T', though I do not know for sure if that is just a legend.

One Southeast Asian nation forbade the export of Teakwood for a time. Teak merchants got around this by building pallets and shipping crates of Teakwood, which were sold to exporters for the packaging of their legitimate products. The crates, which were not technically being sold for export but were being given away, were apparently overlooked in the export laws as written. That oversight was quickly repaired, I believe.

Anyhow, I suppose the shippers of humanitarian goods to such refugees could arrange to use better-quality pallets for their shipments, in order to permit such shelters to be erected by the recipients.

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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Haggis@wk » Mon Sep 10, 2012 10:14 am

While we receive and discard pallets routinely, most are made of worthless wood which, when tossed in the yard, are devoured within months by insects and fungus. Periodically, we receive pallets made of good-quality, using decent hardwoods.


The vast majority of pallets are made of hardwoods, especially oak. I saw an alarming statistic that upwards of 40% of all hardwoods harvested in the U.S. are used to make pallets.
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Re: Is It Time For Americans To Build Smarter Homes?

Postby Shapley » Mon Sep 10, 2012 10:38 am

Haggis@wk wrote:The vast majority of pallets are made of hardwoods, especially oak. I saw an alarming statistic that upwards of 40% of all hardwoods harvested in the U.S. are used to make pallets.


That's possible, and I suppose the quality ones here are kept and either re-used for shipping or, perhaps, retained by those employees who are woodworker-hobbyists or otherwise see the value of the better woods. However, there is always a pile of discarded pallets, it seems, that are made of poor quality wood and/or which did not survive the shipping process intact.
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