Cheddar explains why American homes are so flimsy - and the history that made them this way.
February 16, 2021
In America, thin walls at home are commonplace.
Hearing the occasional footstep on a creaky floor or conversations from the kitchen echoing to an upstairs bathroom is all too familiar for many people and the problem lies in the design. Homebuilding in the U.S. has not advanced much since the mid-1800s when engineer George Washington Snow was tapped to build a Chicago warehouse.
Snow was crunched for time and needed to get the building up as fast as possible. As a result, balloon framing was born.
This method of home building calls for vertical 2x4 planks of wood to be used as exterior walls, and for contractors, this method turned out to be more cost-efficient and allowed homes to be framed in record time. But here-in lies the biggest issue: balloon framed construction projects lack sufficient insulation to trap sound from escaping to the rest of the building.
In places like Europe, where forests have dwindled over the course of thousands of years and access to a surplus of wood is limited, most homes are constructed with masonry materials like brick, stone, and concrete making them more sturdy and giving them a longer lifespan.
America’s Wood Surplus
North America touts sprawling forests, presenting more than enough building materials for home construction. But, over time wood-framed homes come with their own set of issues and maintenance becomes essential after about 30 years.
Lots of people won't stick it out for 30 years in a single home, though. In 2019, homeowners who sold their house and opted for new living quarters did so after an average of just eight years, according to real estate research firm ATTOM Data Solutions. What the next owners do with the home varies from patching problems, to upgrades, or even tearing them down when things start to go wrong.
Flimsy home construction isn't just limited to the United States. Japan faces similar problems. Like the U.S., the Japanese prefer to build homes with wood frames, and they also move often. The lifespan of homes over there are even shorter than in America, with many losing their value after about 20 years and often getting completely torn down after 30 years. Weather conditions and powerful earthquakes in the Pacific Rim nation can topple older homes, but instead of a culture of reinforcing existing structures, people often see investing in them as unnecessary.
Back in America, a growing trend for home construction is the modular home. These preassembled homes are erected in sections at a factory then transported to the lot. The modulars are sturdier than traditional wood-frame homes because more wood, joints, and extra strong glue are needed to keep the structure safe in transit. Even though they can be made faster than a regular build and are cheaper to construct, margins on traditional homes are higher. So far they have been generally used for small homes.
Also, the process of acquiring a modular home can be difficult. There’s the issue of locating and purchasing a plot of land, foundational infrastructure could pose a problem, and financing could be an issue as builders require full payment before construction begins.
Still, there seems to be greater interest in the broader modular construction industry that could be valued as high as $157 billion in just two years.
Video produced by Ali Larkin. Article written by Lawrence Banton.