Housebuilding styles – history – future

Posted on Posted in Construction Industry Musings

fresco_secco_01When I started writing this post I was sitting in a wonderful 18th century villa on the shore of Lake Garda.

One thing that struck me about the buildings around Garda is how different some of the construction styles are to back home in the UK.  No brick on show, everything is rendered – and often painted to imitate stonework, or with frescoes/seccoes.  The roofs are made of semi-circular ‘barrel’ tiles (perhaps the oldest style of clay tile there is?) laid alternately up and down, to allow the water to drain down, and the roof pitches are shallower, presumably in part to stop the whole lot sliding off.  Having noted the lack of brick, we visited Verona on our way back and interestingly some of the highest status buildings there are made almost entirely of red brick.

italian_tilesEvery time I travel (which isn’t often) I am always struck by these differences in architecture from one country or region to another.  I like the idea that we can always learn from what other people do, and whilst construction techniques that are appropriate in northern Italy might not be so at home, some might be, and these ideas don’t travel very easily I think.  People are taught to build in a certain style in whatever country or area they are, and in the UK our current mainstream methods of training reinforce this.

However, sometimes we need to take a bit of a leap of faith, of imagination.  This might be in response to environmental or social changes.  Sticking with the old might not be such a good thing. Interestingly, of course, a lot of new construction methods were brought to the UK by the Romans – roof tiles for one, I think – and then some methods had to be adapted or abandoned because the climate here was so different.

Such upheaval in building methods doesn’t happen very often.  We’ve been building with natural materials – straw, wood and stone etc. – for as long as we’ve been able to.  A few of the more recent UK milestones are probably other Roman introductions like varieties of concrete (with lime, not the modern version), glass, and even more recently industrial quantities of modern clay bricks, modern cement and structural iron and steel.

verona_arenaHousebuilding in the UK is currently in need of a leap of faith.  Apart from the fact most housing estates being built are soulless boxes – the ubiquitous ‘modern townhouse’, often with tiny rooms, small gardens and no focus of community (in fact an emphasis on shutting it out) – the method of construction itself has had its time.  The cavity wall, often thought to be the best thing since sliced bread, is refusing to die.  And it needs to.  Originally invented to keep the load bearing inner walls of the house protected, it has become apparent it’s a really good way to lose heat in winter. Now we put insulation in the gap, but not very much.  It doesn’t work very well, the whole concept is a bit of a bodge, so why do nearly all new houses get built this way? That would be a good question for both the major housing developers and government, and we’ll endeavour to examine that in much more detail sometime soon, but basically it’s because that’s what we train people to build.

verona_brickSo what are the alternatives?  What new building methods could be more sustainable and better address our current issues of a changeable climate and sky-rocketing prices for heating?  Well, let us consider timber and straw.  Timber houses arecurrently not that common in the UK, even though we have quite good access to decent local timber wherever we are. You don’t have to go very far at all to find a field full of wheat or any of the arable crops from which straw is a useful leftover.  But why would we even think about choosing timber and straw now we have brick?  Well this is where we come back to environmental and social changes.  Timber and straw houses are inherently excellently well insulated.  As with any exceptionally well insulated building, heat and cold take longer to come in and go out, therefore the building is warm in winter with little extra heating, and cool in the summer.  If you have eve worked out how much you spend on heating in any given year in an average house, you will know you don’t have to start saving much for those numbers to be quite significant.

Straw and timber – which I have just cunningly decided to refer to as ‘strimber’ – ticks all the right boxes for both construction and sustainability.  Quality, sustainable timber and straw here in the UK means that you could easily build a whole house – a warm and beautiful house – made from materials within a few miles of your site.  This isn’t that surprising because that’s exactly how we used to build houses.  Which isn’t to say we are just winding the clock back a few hundred years, we need all the benefit of the good and bad experiences we’ve had in the meantime and we need modern technology.

In a coming post we’ll consider strimber materials and technologies in more detail. In the meantime I’d be interested to hear your ideas about how we should be building sustainable homes here in the UK.

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