Whatever style of house may be chosen and whatever its magnificence or simplicity, the first essential is to build well and to be free from the annoyances and unnecessary expenses which may follow the use of inadequate or improper materials or methods of construction. It is rare, indeed, that an expenditure of twenty to thirty thousand dollars for a home must be spread out so thin that, in order to provide maximum volume, inferior construction must be tolerated. Ten thousand dollars will build the essential accommodations in bedrooms, living room, dining room and kitchen which are needed by the average family. An expenditure of double this amount obviously introduces considerations of quality construction, and even of elements of luxury.
In this age of rapid change in which families frequently move about from place to place a number of times within the life of a single generation, the question very naturally arises as to whether or not it is worth while to build with an eye to permanency. A century or two ago homes were built to endure because there was every expectation that the family would remain in the original homestead, not merely for a single generation, but for many succeeding generations. It is interesting to note that homes built with this idea in mind have actually survived the vicissitudes of time and stand to-day, venerated for their design and for their superior construction. It is only when men began to build poorly that America became besmirched with ugly structures, which not only deteriorated rapidly but became out of style before a single generation had completed its brief span of life.
To-day there are other reasons than the expectation of establishing a permanent homestead which warrant - in fact economically compel-durable construction. The first of these is the costliness of modern building, due to high labor costs and to the fact that the modern home demands many relatively expensive conveniences and luxuries of which our forefathers never dreamed. A second factor is the cost of maintenance. It can be easily demonstrated that over a period of years the expenditures for keeping a poorly-constructed house in suitable condition are greater than the added initial expenditure required to build well. A third factor, involving architectural design, is obsolescence. Buildings which are competently designed and well executed do not lose in style nor cease to be of value. Good architecture survives style fads just as the paintings of the old masters have not lost any of their value with the advent of the modernist schools. The comparison to paintings may be further extended because it is readily appreciated that a painting may be excellent in composition, color, and theme and still not be satisfying unless its technical qualities are on a high plane. So with buildings. They may be well designed, appropriate to their locality, and yet fail to retain their appeal if they are executed in poor materials and with inadequate workmanship.
1 Adapted from "Building for the Future," Country Life, April, 1929.
Obsolescence destroys value far more rapidly than ordinary wear and tear, and under present conditions of building cost it is gross extravagance to invite obsolescence, either by incompetent design or poor quality construction. With these thoughts in mind, it is well to give some serious consideration to the various structural materials that are suitable for enduring homes. It may be noted here that this discussion will necessarily cover all types of materials, because each type is durable if suitable grades or qualities of materials are employed and are used intelligently. It is thus not the material that is so important as the manner of its use and the selection of grades which have the necessary qualities for fine residential construction.
Wood construction has long predominated in the building of homes, not only in this country, but all over the world where timber has been available. Wood has endured not alone for generations, but for centuries. Compared to other types of materials, it is still relatively the least expensive in this country. When used in the form of solid timbers in the old manner or when hewn and carved and carefully detailed, it may actually be more expensive than other types handled in a more commonplace manner. The advantages of wood hardly need repetition, but certain features should be pointed out because they are seldom considered. When employed as a structural material, wood has higher insulating properties than any form of masonry. An inch of wood is roughly equivalent, as an insulator, to six inches of solid brick masonry or concrete, and nine to ten inches of solid stone masonry. For this reason, frame construction, with a tight wood sheathing on the walls and roof, a layer of building paper, and an outside surface of clapboards or wood shingles, will be as warm in winter and as cool in summer as a masonry house with much thicker walls and of correspondingly higher cost. Furthermore, wood is easily handled and worked, and competent craftsmen can be more readily obtained for this material than for any other, all of which contributes to economy. Even unpainted wood of certain types will withstand weathering action for years, as witnessed by the fine old Colonial homes on the eastern seaboard which have never felt the touch of the painter's brush. However, paint, or some type of preservative stain, is nowadays universally employed on wood construction. It adds to its permanency and introduces opportunities for the use of colors not obtainable on masonry surfaces.
Certain precautions are necessary with wood construction to secure durability and freedom from maintenance expense. These include the proper ventilation of inclosed members to prevent dry rot, the elevation of wood members above ground level on a suitable dry masonry foundation, and the employment of well-seasoned timbers and boarding of those woods which time has demonstrated will last indefinitely. Exposed woods should be painted or treated with a preservative which should also be a stain, and of course the paint itself should be renewed from time to time to restore its fresh appearance.
Turning to the masonry types of construction, the first which warrant attention are those adaptable for use with a wood frame. These include both brick and stone facings and stucco applied over wood. These materials, when used in conjunction with a wood frame, depend for their permanency on the structural frame rather than upon their own inherent qualities; hence the things that have been said about wood apply with equal force to these types of construction, with the exception that the masonry facing introduces fire resisting qualities, eliminates repeated painting, and changes the entire appearance of the structure to one of solid masonry construction.
Brick construction is eminently suitable for all types of dwellings and is the oldest of the synthetic structural materials that mankind has developed. Brick walls are built in a number of ways, beginning with the use of a brick facing over frame, which has already been mentioned, and including a brick facing backed by hollow clay tile, hollow brick walls (constructed by turning the brick on edge and leaving a hollow space between the wythes) and solid brick construction, in which the entire wall consists of only brick and mortar. Various qualities of brick construction are possible, depending upon three elements. The first is the quality of the brick itself, which may range from the soft types of common brick through the durable, hard-burned common bricks, to the almost vitrified face bricks. The second is the quality of construction, including the mortar and the method of laying. Moisture will penetrate through a brick wall eight or even twelve inches thick during driving rains if the mortar is porous and poorly used, and particularly if the bricks are not thoroughly embedded in mortar, leaving gaps in the mortar joints where water can collect. The third factor is the weight and thickness of the wall.
The weather tightness and durability of the brick wall are actually more dependent on the workmanship and the mortar than upon the brick, for almost all kinds of brick will withstand weathering for centuries. The choice between common brick or face brick is purely a personal matter and is influenced by the architectural style more than by considerations of quality, for the better grades of common brick normally employed for exterior facing have all the durability that any home building problem could ever require. The face bricks have their value in developing special colors and textures which cannot be obtained in any other material, and face bricks are usually more uniform in size than common bricks.
Hollow tile is an important structural material which is not given as much consideration by home builders as it deserves. Usually hollow tile is used as a backing material with some form of masonry surfacing, either stucco, brick, or stone. A hollow tile wall is fireproof, light in weight, comparatively inexpensive, and has great insulating value due to the air spaces between its faces. The most common type has a surface especially prepared to receive stucco and this type of construction is exceedingly durable; it is usually considered superior to stucco over a wood frame. Hollow tile is also used with a brick facing and this is generally somewhat less expensive and lighter in weight than walls of solid brick.
The manufacture of cut stone for use as a facing material has been developed in recent years and now is sufficiently economical so that a limestone or marble structure is not an extravagance. When these materials are used, hollow tile is generally employed as the masonry backing to carry the building loads. Hollow tile is also manufactured with a face texture resembling that of face brick, and when cleverly handled, makes an unusual wall of distinctive character. The larger units require somewhat different handling of the fašade than would be customary with ordinary sizes of face brick, but a number of architects have achieved very successful effects based upon the optical illusion produced by these units. The effect, generally, is to diminish the apparent size of the structure because our eyes are accustomed to the smaller sizes of brick as a unit for estimating the scale of a building.
Concrete block is the next material which must be considered. Unfortunately, a few years ago the manufacturers of concrete blocks severely injured their own industry by attempting to reproduce the appearance of a rough stone facing in an artificial material, with the result that concrete block came to be considered as an inferior substitute of exceedingly ugly character. Structurally, the hollow concrete block is excellent and its more general use is warranted. It may be employed like hollow tile as a backing for stucco, brick or stone. A few daring architects have recently discovered that concrete block, produced with a smooth clean face with square or even slightly chamfered edges, can be laid up to make a very interesting wall, especially if whitewashed. George Washington's home at Mount Vernon used wood, on the river-front side, shaped to resemble cut stone in large blocks. The same effect is accomplished by the use of hollow concrete blocks, with either flush or recessed joints, and the effect of whitewashing is to restore an old Colonial or Georgian character which is quite suitable for country homes.
Among the remaining structural materials for fine dwellings are reinforced concrete and steel. Reinforced concrete has been little used for this purpose because it is unnecessarily strong for the light loads of a dwelling. Its extreme permanency and fireproof qualities make it desirable for the larger country estates, which will house valuable furnishings and works of art and which are so isolated as to require the utmost fireproof protection that can be obtained. When reinforced concrete is used for the structural frame and exterior walls, it is usually employed also for the interior structural members, including the floors and even the roof.
Steel construction is the newest development in the home-building field, and only recently has it become both practical and economical. Many attempts have been made in the past to adapt the skyscraper steel skeleton to residential buildings, but less than a year has elapsed since a completely practical method of doing so has been found. Now a steel-framed house can be erected rapidly and at comparatively low cost, using members made of light steel shapes exactly corresponding to the wooden members used in ordinary construction. One of the large steel companies has entered this field and is manufacturing the structural elements needed in homes of all sizes, and the system they have employed makes it possible for the architect to design without any serious limitations upon his dimensions, proportions or loads. In fact, the architect can design as he had been accustomed to with wood or masonry, and a steel frame can be fabricated for the home and delivered to the site before the foundations are ready. This development introduces the completely fireproof home in which all the structural parts are of noncombustible materials. The steel frame is used with an exterior facing material of masonry, such as stucco or a brick or stone facing. The structural floors are of concrete laid over steel beams, using a new type of reinforcing material that eliminates the need for forms in pouring floors. The interior partitions have steel studs and are plastered on either side, so that the structural members are fully inclosed. Usually some type of insulating material is employed on the exterior walls and roof, which may be a part of the stucco reinforcing fabric or may consist of any of the standard types of insulating materials which are generally used on the inner faces of the walls or between the structural members.
[Note. - In some of the larger cities of this country as well as in England steel frame houses have been erected. Steel frame construction will, it is believed, cut down considerably the length of time in building. However, every effort should be made in order not to standardize houses where large-scale production is applied extensively. Pise de terre, known as rammed earth construction, and also adobe construction are two of the old building materials and processes which are still in use today. Adobe, which is a mixture of suitable clay, sand, and fiber (grass or roots), is used for the walls or is formed into brick. Adobe houses are commonly found in the southwestern part of the country and also in Mexico. For information on rammed earth construction see Rammed Earth Walls for Buildings (Farmers' Bull. No. 1500, U.S. Department of Agriculture).