In France, where I'm from, homes are made of stone or thick brick, at least for the most part. When I lived there many years ago, it was what people knew and expected. Fast-forward several years later and I find myself living in the United States. What a surprise it was for me to see that many homes here were built with wooden foundations. My first reaction was, "Oh dear! Are those going to last?" "Won't that house burn down in a fire?" "Will it withstand a terrible storm or earthquake?" Many French people and other Europeans remark on this when they visit or move to the U.S. I wondered how this practice came to be.
Digging a little into American history I discovered some things about why so many American houses are made of wood:
1. Esthetic - Stone versus wood is always a subject of contention and this is no different. Some people claim that wood homes not only look better, but they also have a warmer "feel," which is not necessarily referring to temperature, but rather, a psychological "impression" or feeling of positive well-being.
2. Availability of Materials - The vast abundance of American forests meant that supply of lumber was plentiful so it became an attractive resource to widely take advantage of not only in the construction industry but other industries as well. This is particularly relevant to the Pacific northwest, the New England and eastern regions of the United States.
3. Cost & Energy Efficiency - In general, wood is much more cost effective in relationship to the construction of homes in that it requires less amounts of energy to manufacture. This is also given the fact that even in areas that lack wood and logging companies and services, lumber is relatively lighter with reduced fuel costs to transport than heavier building materials such as concrete and brick. On the consumer side, wood homes are extremely energy efficient and sustainable for a variety of reasons, bringing significant cost savings annually to home owners.
4. Convenience - Wood is a material that is much easier to work with and to manipulate than its heavier counterparts. This means that homes get built faster and cost of labor is positively affected, which translates to more homes built in a shorter amount of time. It's ideal for the construction industry and their bottom line.
5. Practicality & Safety - While Europeans are biased about the durability of stone, brick and concrete homes, Americans have no choice but to add climate change factors into the equation when making the decision regarding home building materials. For example, a region known for experiencing a high percentage of earthquakes, would likely build homes out of wood. It is generally more safe to be in a wood framed home because if it collapses while in it, the chances of serious injury are reduced. Also, wood sways easier with earthquake movement.
Interesting fact: A large percentage of the raw wood materials (logs) in the U.S. are exported to China and elsewhere in order to be converted into finished lumber. It is then imported back to the U.S.!
The above list is non-exhaustive so if you'd like to add something or contribute an opinion, feel free to include a comment below.
Photo courtesy of habit bois France.
In summary, I've learned quite a bit from all this research and now have a much better understanding of why wooden homes seem to prevail in the United States. Consequently, I believe this change of heart is spreading across Europe, too. To be honest, France does have its fair share of wood built homes, which date way back to the 13th century! Half timbered houses have been a time honored tradition all over France, particularly in Normandy and Brittany. However, most recently, many construction companies have embraced a more modern, sustainable template, which means distancing themselves from the classic stone and brick foundations and preferring to concentrate on energy efficient wood homes. This seems to be a growing trend in Europe, with good reason!