Due to centuries of tradition and technical know how on timber construction, the United States has carried on decades of working with wood. The country naturally has an abundance of tall, large trees and this method of construction began in their colonial roots. Another factor that Americans opt for wooden homes is its availability makes them the most affordable and quickest option for housing.
American homes continue to suffer forest fires, leading to drier plains that can fuel even more fires and homes to burn down. Despite the numbers in burned homes rising, the U.S. still clings onto timber construction.
Globally, it ranks as one of the top countries that uses wood as a dominant material for residential construction. According to the National Association of Home Builders, in 2019, 90% of homes were wood-framed.
Environmentally, U.S. scientists are also urging the reduction of wood construction as trees play a significant role in capturing carbon to combat climate change. However, America’s demand for wood is strong in not only home construction but furniture and crafts. Could this be integral to their identity as a nation? Does it preserve an economic balance in the country? (1)
Due to the pandemic, the price of lumber has shot up, making wood homes lose a bit of their appeal in affordability. The frequent forest fires have also convinced homebuyers to rebuild with steel, brick, or new building materials. (1)
Wood has many desirable properties as a construction material. If sustainably sourced, it is great environmentally and its flexible nature makes it resistant to earthquakes. Of course, compared to most building materials, it is also considered one of the cheapest to source and easiest to work with. (2)
The U.S. is blessed with an abundance of forests making wood the most available material. Therefore wood is easiest to repair, replace and source for new homes. The mobile nature of Americans also complements wood homes well. As Americans move homes and states more often than most cultures around the world, “temporary” homes or those built cheaper for “in the meantime” are more appealing than pricier homes if they don’t plan on staying there forever. (3)
With centuries of building with timber, this has created a network of skills and equipment catered toward wood construction. The do-it-yourself culture of Americans also adds to the independence and affordability of having their dream homes.
Other economic factors are that taxes for wooden homes are much less than that of homes built with non-wood materials. Insurance wise, wood homes also have more incentives.
Some rigid materials like brick can actually perform less safely in resisting earthquakes. Repairs are also much easier and cheaper for wooden homes that the everyday homeowner can get fixed. Wood being a natural insulator renders great energy efficiency in naturally warming or cooling a home better than others. It also insulates from noise better than other building materials.
However, one must be cautious of how the wood is treated and sourced. Mass deforestation due to illegal logging and the high demand for wood has led to extinction of several animals and endangerment of the forests themselves. The risk is lower for home construction that makes use of less endangered softwood species such as spruce, fir and pine. (2)
Shorter harvest seasons have been implemented for a quicker turnaround of lumber, but this results in the trees not having the same strength (not being as old) for structural members like beams. This causes the building industry to fabricate engineered wood products from several scrap wood glued together. One must be wary of the adhesives used, as these typically include formaldehyde, which can pose damaging health risks to cancers and your respiratory system.
Illegal logging and climate change only worsening deforestation, will cause a shift away from timber construction. Great change in the American housing industry will come from an inevitable need to rebuild with wood no longer being an option. Check out the economic and environmental implications of this in TIME Magazine’s article, Why Is the U.S. Still Using Wood to Build Houses? | Time
In terms of being more eco-friendly, other building materials like steel perform better than wood. However, to the everyday homebuyer, the driving point will always be price. Bone Structure, a Canadian prefab company stated their prefabricated steel homes will cost around 10% more than wooden homes would. (1)
Not only that, but several home insurance companies in the United States do not offer discounts for homes with steel, concrete or located in fire-prone areas. Some insurance policies even need owners to rebuild quick enough after the damage in order to cash in the due payment. This in turn will prompt more homebuyers to rebuild the quickest, with a material so available and a method most contractors and builders are comfortable with. Therefore the cycle for timber construction in America will not die out so easily. (1)
It is difficult as the knowledge base of architects, laborers and contractors in the country are also used to building with wood. However with the addition to the hurricane building codes, building professionals are being asked to pivot as the market for concrete-framed homes slowly increases.
During the U.S. colonial period, its early settlers opted for wood construction as the material was abundant and they needed to build a town as quickly as possible. (2)
The diverse cultures of immigrants at the time fostered a trade of carpentry skills, needing to share ideas on how to work with the new wood and climate. This developed a carpentry history unique to America, which has carried over centuries to today. (3)
As we further elaborated in our previous article, “Why American Houses are Poorly Built and How to Prevent it! “, balloon framing was made possible for Americans to build large, quick and cheap. Avoid the potholes of flimsy, wooden homes in the U.S. by checking out our piece! In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from there:
“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. (4)
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.
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. (5)”
- Semuels, A. (2021, June 2). Why is the U.S. still using wood to build houses? Time. Retrieved August 2022, from https://time.com/6046368/wood-steel-houses-fires/
- Knorr-Evans, M. (2021, October 13). Why are houses in the United States made out of wood? . Diario AS. Retrieved August 2022, from https://en.as.com/en/2021/10/13/latest_news/1634141504_058858.html
- The Freeman Online. (2021, December 5). Why are American houses made of wood? The Freeman Online. Retrieved August 2022, from https://www.thefreemanonline.org/why-are-american-houses-made-of-wood/
- 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