The U.S. has always been at the forefront of mass production and the place where you can have it all. Despite being the superpower of the world, homes in America are known for their flimsy character: walls where you hear conversations in the other room and news of roofs being ripped in hurricanes, sometimes the entire house uprooted! Why is this so? And why was this concept of building only limited to the United States?
American consumerism plays a big factor in society, wanting new, large homes fast and cheap. Poor connection joinery of building elements or wrong choice of material to climate (typically overlooked) results in houses being easily damaged in disasters. The right workmanship takes time into looking at the applicable building codes for safety and designing details appropriate to site conditions and hazards.
Below we go into more details on why it is still built this way, how it should be built, about the materials and conditions, safety precautions and other related factors.
Build Quick, Large and Cheap
In the 1950 – 1970 , the U.S. experienced an increase of wealth and population in the middle class that led to the common promise of the American Dream, owning a house and car, which if we all picture in our heads, isn’t exactly a small home. (1)
The construction industry seized this opportunity in maximizing earnings to meet the growing demand ASAP in supplying to as many new homeowners as possible. The criteria was to build the quickest (as also time is money) while delivering that dream of a huge square footage home, all while being an affordable and easy buy. The solution was to utilize wood as the main structural component in a system called “balloon framing.” It is the simplest form of construction in which one piece of wood connects the lowest to highest part of the house. This makes homes incredibly easy to erect but also easy to destroy.
Workmanship & Quality of Building
Invest in Good Joinery
The quickest solution is to use reinforced concrete built to withstand 180 mph as “Global Best Practice” for high wind hazards.
Say you want to keep the look and feel of a true wooden home, consult your architect and engineer on the wind load requirements and joinery details. The roof for example, is the most susceptible to getting blown off in hurricanes. The usual culprit is having a weak anchor attachment and connection to your home. (2)
However, the reaction of the wind to the roof’s slope shape and weight also play in. As per the Building Resilience Index of the IFC, “Low profile hip roofs (all sides slope/inclined and no vertical sections) as well as flat roofs tend to resist better.” Although flat roofs may cause a problem for climates that need to remove heavy rain or snow, which is why we see their historical structures having high slope roofs. Not to mention low quality of waterproofing and fastening of accessories to roof (like the gutter) can lead to indoor leaks, weakening of roof material and dangerous debris in hurricanes. — So maybe do not easily D.I.Y. your roofs!
Choosing the Right Materials for the Right Conditions
Although most American homes look like they’re built with brick and stone, these are actually just “facing cladding” attached onto the wood framing. This captures any look the client may want while keeping costs low. In some cases, it is ideal to have a lighter building in weight, resulting in a cheaper foundation carrying less load and less dangerous debris in disasters.
However real concrete and brick can give added strength as well as insulation to heat and sound where wood cannot. Concrete and brick construction (as is the common material for middle class homes in most countries) require a lot more materials and is labor intensive. This surges up the price by a lot, especially in the U.S. where manual labor is expensive and therefore “D.I.Y.” methods are encouraged. (3)
Wood can also be an excellent resilient material if the site conditions allow it, if the lumber is treated well and specified with detailed construction joinery. It is arguable that wood actually performs better in earthquakes, as it tends to sway with the movement rather than concrete that resists to eventually crack.
We see that what we initially save in building cost can amount to a much heavier price to pay in damages putting both future investment and life at risk.
Opt for Prefabricated or Modular Construction
Prefabricated homes are built completely off-site and in controlled factory conditions. This allows for stronger and resilient building joinery, with less room for construction error. Having to undergo transportation from factory to site, these are built stronger to last the trip on the road. Modular homes are often square or rectangular in shape to be easily reproduced and combined. In structural design, simple shapes are stronger against earthquakes. Simply put, more corners in the building mean more points of weakness wherein the building can tug and pull against one another to eventual damage or collapse.
Although prefabricated and modular homes do not give as much freedom in design style, these modes of construction have a greater chance in withstanding calamities than our average wood frame housing.
They also make for a cleaner environment in eradicating construction pollution in your lot!
To learn more on prefabricated and modular homes, check out our article on: Modular Homes Vs. Prefab (Differences Explained!) – Prefabie
Safety Precautions & Steps To Take
Know What Hazards You’re Looking to Protect From.
Before moving into a new city, it greatly helps to do a quick search on the present and projected hazards in the area. Flood maps for example are studied as a prediction for the next 100 years. This will help you in the next steps to see what building qualities you need to watch out for. Should my home be strong against winds? Flooding? Fires? Earthquakes? Or a combination of the above.
Every site presents its own set of challenges. Check out your place in these sites to quickly find what you need to look out for:
- FIRE & FLOOD – U.S. Fire Administration (FEMA) U.S. Fire Administration (fema.gov)
- FLOOD – First Street Foundation National Flood Model & FEMA Find Your Home’s Flood Risk | Flood Factor
- EARTHQUAKES – U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Google Earth™/KML Files | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)
Data from Why The U.S. Builds Houses Wrong – YouTube (4)
Consult the Professionals
The best way to avoid all potential potholes is to consult an architect and/or engineer. These professionals will analyze all of the pointers above to get you the best solution for your site’s specific needs. Get a professional opinion on your site, building regulations and building materials used. The combination of site hazards, to materials and local codes can be tricky and is in their skillset to play with these components while maximizing all resources.
This also ensures you don’t waste money by “overengineering” your home. Over-engineering is when the building is overly specified to withstand a load 10x more than it needs. For example, a 2 storey home specified with the foundations fit for 10 storeys, or oversized columns and beams. A lot of money will be spent and usable square footage will surely be wasted. (5)
Proper site planning and orientation of design elements are fully optimized by architects, by analyzing each building component to serve their aesthetic and protective functions. Design strategies to anticipate weather conditions and your neighbor can greatly reduce the risk and effects of disasters on your home:
- Should we place rain gardens or trenches to reduce flooding?
- Elevate the structure?
- What materials should I use that would be fire-resistive or water-resistant and which areas do I apply it to?
- How large, what shape and ratio should my windows facing my neighbor be to reduce the spread of fire?
- Where should I be mindful of placing combustible furniture/items outside my house?
Although it is never on the top of our heads, it does help to inquire on the Fire Safety systems of buildings. For regular homes, architects will verify the distance to fire exits, correct type of fire extinguishers, setback requirements, fire resistance ratings of materials and perhaps prevailing winds (should the fire blow in that direction). For vertical construction such as apartments and condominiums, one must also check if the sprinkler systems have been maintained well or are due for replacement, and typically have dry standpipe systems for firemen to attach to. Regardless of building type, it definitely pays to check the nearest operating Fire Station to you via google maps.
Be Mindful of the What Comes with the Lifestyle
The consumerist culture in America of always wanting the newest thing, having the luxury of owning the latest trend is high. Also, knowing in the U.S. it is much easier (or cheaper) to buy than it is to repair. Wanting the latest fashion is evident in housing history when we see all the colonial trends the country has gone through. This is the reason why you find Greek Revival, Dutch, Spanish, Colonial Homes, Italianate Villas throughout the country. (6)
Today’s culture in America is needing to relocate states to accommodate your new job. Statistics show that the turnaround and average length one stays in a company in America is 4 years as compared to the European Union of 10 years. Therefore, people are always needing a new home and are not looking at that purchase as something they’ll pass down to future generations for the next 50-100 years. (6)
Why the U.S. differs from Europe on the quality of homes
A question that gets asked a lot is, why did this quality of flimsy homes stay within America and (unlike most architectural movements) not spread worldwide?
Firstly, America has vast amounts of forests with tall trees, making for continuous long pieces of lumber needed for balloon framing. Europe did not have much of these trees and needed to conserve the forests they had left. That and at this time European countries were still poor, rebuilding from the war and unable to exponentially expand the way the U.S. did. (3)
The consumerist culture that came about in this time also plays a huge role. Being the leading capitalist country fueled by the consumer industry, old homes are not as desirable and the want for “new things” was (and in many ways still is) skyrocketing at the time.
Some say homes are intentionally built this way to purposely develop a need for other industries such as house repair, pest control, construction, gas/petrol, gardening etc. Producing a chain reaction of services needed to repair the cheaply built home. (7) The quicker houses can be built, the more money the industry makes, to ensure each new homeowner is sold to.
Lastly, building restrictions are not as strict in the United States, as they only follow the International Code Council (ICC) and local ones are dependent on your state. Some states enforce strict codes, but those without are only guided by general rules. This may be due to the fact that most of the country is not prone to many natural calamities and disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. However, the few states that do undergo these challenges tend to suffer great damages. (4)
Long Story Short, it Pays to Build Well.
So maybe bigger is not always better, and having the newest thing isn’t always the safest. It may mean spending more on repairing the roof gutter or maintaining the garden, or for fear of the roof being blown off as climate change worsens. Perhaps this is the reason the movement for Tiny Homes has been on the rise. The American consumerist mentality is shifting towards having fewer but high quality things, leaving the family without debt and becoming a conscious consumer. Making deliberate choices in our homes saves us money and saves our lives.
Maybe you won’t be living in that house you build for the next 50 years or pass it down to your children. It has a much stronger selling value to say “my house is disaster resilient!” and be confident your house won’t be blown away or rip apart in the next calamity.
In the beauty that every site is unique, every site also poses its own set of problems that may need a professional eye to solve. With more expensive material, extensive research, building time and paying a professional, it seems an exorbitant amount added onto our quick, large and cheap home. However this added cost also has the liability of the architect as insurance for years on your home. It’s not to say we can’t have our homes cheaper, large or built fast, so long as we take the time into building them well.
- Pinsker, J. (2019, September 12). Why are American Homes So Big? The Atlantic. Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/09/american-houses-big/597811/
- IFC, . (2021, October 27). Building Resilience Index User Guide Version 1.0. Washington, DC 20433; International Finance Corporation. https://www.resilienceindex.org/guide
- Banton, L. (2021, February). Why So Many American Homes are Flimsy. Cheddar. Retrieved February 2022, from https://cheddar.com/media/why-so-american-homes-are-flimsy
- CNBC. (2021). Why The U.S. Builds Houses Wrong. YouTube. Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D11-DITq-Is
- Worstall, T. (2014, June 27). Why so much US infrastructure and housing is lousy, built with shoddy materials. Forbes. Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2014/06/27/why-so-much-us-infrastructure-and-housing-is-lousy-built-with-shoddy-materials/?sh=2db0c1547428
- AHS. (n.d.). 450 Years of American Houses Visualized. American Home Shield. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.ahs.com/home-matters/real-estate/450-years-of-american-houses-visualized
- frantisek78. (2021, May 17). Why are American houses so flimsy and poorly built? Dengarden. Retrieved February 2022, from https://dengarden.com/misc/American-Houses-and-Bad-Quality